Terps' Will Likely's success fueled by 'special' work ethic

  • Maryland defensive back William Likely forces West Virginia wide receiver Mario Alford to fumble after his catch at Byrd Stadium.
Maryland defensive back William Likely forces West Virginia… (Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY…)
September 18, 2014|By Matt Zenitz | Baltimore Sun Media Group

COLLEGE PARK — At different points, Maryland’s media relations staff is responsible for tracking down Terps players.

Some players can be more difficult to find or get in touch with. But Matt Taylor, Maryland’s primary media contact for football, says sophomore cornerback Will Likely is not one of them.

If Likely is not in class or on the practice field, Taylor says Likely is often just in the Terps’ defensive back team meeting room evaluating film.

People can see Likely's talent. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, was a playmaker on both defense and special teams as a freshman last year and has further established himself as a core part of the Terps’ defense and special teams this season.

But coach Randy Edsall said last year that he wished he had 100 players just like Likely, and that’s because of more than what Likely does on the field.

“You guys don't get to see it on a daily basis like we do,” Edsall said Tuesday. “But when you take a guy like Will, it's not surprising that he's playing as well as he's playing [because of] the amount of time and effort that he puts into it, in terms of studying film and going out on the practice field and working hard each and every snap.”

Likely is just 5-feet-7 — about three inches shorter than the average cornerback — but he started 11 of the Terps’ final 12 games at cornerback last season and has 18 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception, four pass deflections and a forced fumble in three games this year.

Maryland’s pass defense struggled against West Virginia last week as Mountaineers quarterback Clint Trickett threw for 511 yards and four touchdowns. However, Likely had a forced fumble, an interception and a pass deflection, and he may have had another interception had he not been pushed by a Mountaineers wide receiver while going for the ball.

“He has a lot of pride,” Edsall said. “That's the other thing. That's what separates him from a lot of these guys. He doesn't want to get beat. And if he does, he's going to figure out why he got beat and go back and make sure it doesn't happen again. He isn't going to hang his head, he is going to come back and do more.”

Likely is like that with special teams, too.

He had issues with muffed punts last season and had problems as recently as the early part of preseason practice. But Edsall challenged Likely to become more reliable. So Likely spent time catching tennis balls and training himself to focus on securing the ball before looking for where to run.

Through three games, he has not muffed a punt.

“Last year, I was trying to be too fast,” Likely said. “But I slowed down and let it come to me now.”

Likely is still making big plays, though. He had a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown against Virginia Tech last season and averaged 26 yards per kick return.

Stefon Diggs has handled kick return duties for the Terps this season, but Likely is averaging 27.5 yards per punt return, the third-highest average in the country.

He had a 35-yard punt return against James Madison, a 46-yard return to set up a touchdown against South Florida and a game-tying, 63-yard return for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of last week’s game against West Virginia.

“He just brings a lot of energy, and he always comes through in key moments when you need him the most,” outside linebacker Yannick Ngakoue said. “And I felt like we needed him the most [vs. West Virginia] and he showed up and helped us out a lot. He’s a big part of our team.”

But Edsall says Likely is also an example setter for his teammates because of his work ethic.

Prior to meeting with the media Tuesday, Likely said he was in the defensive back team meeting room watching film for around two hours. When he finished with the media, he said he was going right back to watch more film.

“It's easy as a coach to be able to watch young men ... [and] be able to tell how well they are going to play because of how much effort they put into it and how they conduct themselves and how much pride they have,” Edsall said. “They understand that what they put on film, that's their resume. Some guys have more pride than others when it comes to that.

“Those are the challenges that you have as parents, as coaches, as mentors and as teachers. You try to get everybody up there, but every kid is different. Will is special.”

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