After Will Likely had an interception, forced fumble and punt return touchdown in a loss against West Virginia on Sept. 13 , the Terrapins' sophomore cornerback wasn't in much of a mood to talk about it.
"At the end of the day, you want to win," Likely said the following Tuesday. "So if you don't win, everything that you do, it [doesn't] really matter."
Lately, his biggest plays have mattered plenty. When Likely plays well, Maryland tends to win. Since the West Virginia game, Likely has four interceptions, spread over games against Syracuse, Indiana, Iowa and Penn State. The Terrapins' record in those games is a tidy 4-0.
Likely leads the Big Ten with five interceptions, and he's tied for the raw lead with 11 passes defensed. He is one of five players nationally to have returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He's 27th in the conference in per game, with an impressive-for-a-cornerback 55 overall. His 11.5-yard punt return average is third in the league. After an 88-yard interception return against Syracuse, he became the first Terrapin to be named the Big Ten's defensive player of the week.
Without Likely's five interceptions, the Terrapins would have just three as a team, tying them for last in the conference with Michigan. In fact, no Maryland player has posted a five-interception season since Domonique Foxworth had exactly that many in 2002. Maryland has had a couple of excellent corners since that time, including current NFL talent like Dexter McDougle and Josh Wilson. None ever intercepted as many balls in a year as Likely has in 2014.
|Will Likely's Freshman and Sophomore Seasons|
|Season||Games||Interceptions||Tackles||Punt Return Avg.||Total TDs|
No one describes Likely as talkative, and he rarely meets with the media. Nonetheless, Maryland coach Randy Edsall has said repeatedly that Likely leads his team by example as a relentless worker.
"The thing that I like is that other guys see that. Other guys try to emulate how he works and how he practices, so to me, that's a bigger bonus for us, as coaches and as a team, when you have an example like Will," Edsall said in late September. "When you have a guy who does it day in and day out, doing it consistently and doing it each and every practice."
This year, Likely has been beaten by a few receivers, most significantly West Virginia star Kevin White, who racked up a good chunk of his 216 yards versus Maryland that day against Likely. His 5-foot-7 stature means he'll never be unbeatable, no matter how formidable he is. But he's made progress in coverage and turned this year into an elite ball-hawk, quintupling his lone interception from last year through just three quarters of the season. .
Last weekend at Penn State, Likely was the only healthy cornerback with serious FBS experience on Maryland's roster, and he matched up often against the Big Ten's leading receiver, DaeSean Hamilton. Hamilton had a season-low 42 yards on five catches. Likely nabbed his fifth interception of the year when he ran Hamilton's route better than Hamilton did himself and came down with a Christian Hackenberg pass in the first quarter.
|Will Likely's Big Ten Ranks, 2014 (as of Nov. 5)|
|Interceptions||Tackles||Defensive Touchdowns||Punt Return Avg.|
The cornerback's physical skills are evident from afar. He is one of the fastest runners on the team. He can jump high enough to often make up for his lack of height. He can intercept passes by adjusting to high, looping throws, baiting a quarterback into a stupid throw or simply jumping a route. On special teams, his agility and vision have helped him return punts great distances. That's all obvious, but his teammates praise him effusively for what doesn't show up on TV screens.
"He's off the charts, man," said Jeremiah Johnson, the senior cornerback who normally starts opposite Likely in Maryland's defensive backfield. "And one thing I admire about him, although he's younger than me, is his work ethic. He really wants to be the best. He works at that."
Given his size, Likely is an unusual breed. In last spring's NFL Draft, professional teams selected 35 cornerbacks. Likely is listed as shorter in stature than every one of them.
Likely has compensated for his lack of size with work ethic, teammates say.
"Will's not a big vocal guy, but that's because I think he always is ready to go to work," Johnson said. "What I mean by that is he's always focused on what he's doing. You're not going to see Will have too many missed assignments or mental errors or things like that."
Of course, Likely's success wasn't unforeseeable. Despite being shorter than almost everyone else on the field, he was a Gatorade player of the year in high school in Florida. His height aside, he was the kind of player who normally winds up at a traditional southern power school – an Alabama, a Florida, a Georgia, a Florida State or the like. But Brian Stewart and Andre Powell, recruited Likely to Maryland, per Rivals, and he committed in November 2012. He surprised coaches in training camp before last season, and he's been an important piece ever since.
Senior linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil also touted Likely's mix of workmanship and skill.
"He's been phenomenal, and it goes back to his work ethic," Cudjoe-Virgil said. "He's a guy that is first one in, last one out. I'm not surprised at his play and what he's been able to contribute to this defense, and how important he is to our defense."
Likely has blossomed this season, but his freshman year wasn't entirely smooth sailing. He had to contend for playing time in what was a more crowded cornerback corps, and he had struggles holding punts. As a punt returner, he let the ball slip from his hands on a few occasions, coughing it up to opponents with strong field position.
"Last year, I had a few muffed. I worked on that a lot this summer, and I think I grade myself higher now," Likely said after his 69-yard return against West Virginia. "I think I do better."
Likely had a fumble on a punt against South Florida, which Maryland recovered, but has otherwise been sturdy in that spot all year after struggling a year earlier. Add his punt-returning exploits to his defensive play, and Maryland is left with one of the finest all-around defensive backs in the conference.
"It doesn't surprise me that he plays the way he plays, because of the way he prepares and how much of a competitor he is," Edsall said. "He doesn't want the limelight or any of those things. He just wants to do his job and do it to the best of his ability."