The Maryland football team might have 99 problems, but their special teams aren't one of them. That's because the Terrapins have been blessed with a perfect combination in football's third phase: ace kicker Brad Craddock and electrifying punt returner Will Likely.
Craddock has started 2015 with what looks like a strong follow-up to his Lou Groza Award-winning campaign in 2014. He has hit five of six field goals - the second most makes in the country - after his 18-of-19 showing earned him national acclaim a season ago.
Likely has begun the new year perhaps more impressively. He set Big Ten and Maryland records when he returned eight punts for 233 yards in an opening-week win over FCS Richmond. The next week, against Bowling Green, he took the first punt he fielded and ran it back 85 yards for a touchdown. It was his second in two weeks, and his 315 raw punt return yards were more than double anyone else in FBS.
Together, Craddock and Likely are essential. Last season - when Craddock was a junior and Likely a sophomore - their contributions catapulted Maryland to one of the top 10 special teams efficiency rates in the country. Early indications are they'll have Maryland there again.
It's not that Craddock and Likely are without their imperfections, of course. Craddock missed a chip-shot field goal and an extra point attempt in the opener this year, and Likely muffed a punt that led to a Bowling Green touchdown a week later. Both have met with challenges: Craddock, as an Australian import who struggled badly in his freshman season; and Likely, as a 5'7 lightning bolt whose height was, ahem, likely all that kept him from committing to a juggernaut school.
But what has set Craddock and Likely apart is persistence. Namely, persistent improvement.
Craddock's field goal percentages in his first three years went from 63 to 84 to 95. Even as a Groza winner as a junior, he lagged behind on kickoffs, only posting a 39 percent touchback rate, 52nd among all qualifying kickers. So, this year, what's Craddock done? To date, he's upped his touchback rate to 69 percent, a top-25 rate.
It is a similar story for Likely. His punt return average so far is 32 yards. That will go down with repetition, but it will still blow away his 11- and 13-yard averages of seasons past. He has also developed into Maryland's best cover cornerback despite his small stature. His six interceptions last year tied for the Big Ten lead. As a freshman, he had one.
Belle Glade, Fla., is more than a day's flight away from Adelaide, Australia. Likely and Craddock come from different places and play different positions. Fortunately for Maryland, both found their way to College Park, where they play dual roles as Maryland's best players. They're the team's most perfect combination.