Will Likely's case for Terps MVP

Will Likely returns a punt for a score against Virginia Tech. He will likely do this at least once more over the next three seasons. - Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The freshman cornerback filled two critical, injury-created holes for the 2013 Terrapins.

A lot of things about this Terrapins football season didn't go according to plan. There were injuries to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, injuries and regression and then improvement from C.J. Brown and a steady flow of medical setbacks in Brian Stewart's linebacking corps.Those all got plenty of attention, but nothing stoked more fear in Terps' fans hearts than the subsequent season-ending (or nearly season-ending) injuries to starting cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson. How, we all wondered, could the Terps avoid get roasted vertically by every quarterback they saw? The situation looked dire, because you can't win if you can't stop the pass.

A broken toe befell Johnson in the second game of the year, and McDougle dislocated a shoulder two weeks later in Connecticut. That elevated Will Likely, a freshman defensive back who was only supposed to play in certain packages, to a de facto No. 1 corner position. And when Diggs went down a few weeks later, Likely became the Terps' go-to man on returns. Two months into his college career, the reserve cornerback was suddenly one-on-one with opposing teams' best receivers and anchoring the Terrapins' return game. Welcome to the stage, indeed.

Likely is a diminutive kid, listed at 5-feet-7 and 175 pounds. But he was the Terps' primary man defender against several of the ACC's best receivers, and even though packages were mixed and several had huge games, Likely held up fine. There were widespread worries after McDougle and Johnson went down that the Terps couldn't stop a high school passing game, let alone a D-1 unit. The Terps' passing defense certainly wasn't good without its starting corners, but Likely was a primary contributor toward at least keeping it afloat. Things could have been much, much worse.

Likely intercepted one pass, tying him for fourth on the team. He averaged 13 yards on punt returns and 27 yards on kick returns, beating Diggs -- when he was healthy -- by 3.5 yards per return. He muffed more than one or two punts and sometimes made typical freshman mistakes, but he was effective on the whole. Likely received a small handful of votes for ACC rookie of the year, an insignificant but deserved validation of a solid season.

Even though his play was more "fine" than "excellent," Likely plugged two gaping holes in his freshman season. He picked his team up in spots where it was especially vulnerable, and he offered reason for optimism that the Terps' secondary of the future will fare just fine. He prevented a potential disaster from materializing on special teams and in the defensive backfield. His punt return touchdown in Blacksburg was one of the season's greatest moments.

In a tumultuous but ultimately successful football season, that makes Likely a strong candidate for the team's MVP award.

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