Will Likely is lightning. He's a great cornerback, but he's arguably just as great a punt and kick returner. When the ball comes near his his hands, he's probably catching it and running away from people, whether he's playing defense or fielding punts. College football players now have a two-plus-years penchant for not being able to tackle him.
While I was sitting high up in Byrd Stadium last Saturday, watching Likely do that and also something approximating it another seven times for a total of 233 punt return yards, I had the same thought you probably did. I wasn't alone.
@alex_kirshner I'd love to see Likely run the wildcat— Ryan Baillargeon (@RyanBaillargeon) September 5, 2015
@alex_kirshner Hadn't thought about that. They might not be able to find him.— Ryan Baillargeon (@RyanBaillargeon) September 5, 2015
Likely is 5'7, which doesn't bode terrifically for a career as a receiver or running back. But it doesn't exactly scream "cornerback," either, and we've already seen how irrelevant that is to him. Likely is an anomaly. He'd be an anomaly even if he were 6'3, because 99 percent of college football players can't run like he can, juke like he can or catch other teams' passes like he can. Given that Maryland's offense isn't quite dripping with proven playmakers, it's not an irrational question to ask: Why isn't Maryland's very best playmaker touching the ball all the time, even on offense?
So, on Wednesday, I asked Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley: Has he ever considered pushing the Likely button?
"There's no doubt about it. He jokes around a lot about it. ‘Put me in the slot, Coach, put me in the slot,'" Locksley said. "He's just so valuable to our team with the amount of reps that he plays on defense, and then special teams."
Injuries are a serious consideration, and they have to be. So is fatigue. Likely is, again, not a big man. Durability is no problem when a 175-pounder touches the ball five or ten times in a game on special teams, but offensive players with Likely's skills handle the ball a lot more than that, and they start with less open field than Likely does as a returner. The Big Ten has plenty of menacing defenders who like to hit people. Ohio State has 15 of them on its 11-man defense. So Likely on offense is spine-tinglingly fun to consider in the abstract, but it would carry the risk of Maryland losing or diminishing its best defensive back and special-teamer. In more than one sense, it would be like playing with fire.
In another sense, Maryland already does view Likely as an offensive player. His returning ability makes him a field position machine, and that's more valuable than any handful of offensive snaps would ever likely be.
"The field position that he gives us, he is an offensive weapon, so he helps the offense," Locksley said. "He provided us great field position last week, and for an offense, when you get the ball at your plus or minus 42- or 43-[yard line], wherever our average drive start was, you should score 50 or more points." Against Richmond, Maryland won 50-21 and started just two drives inside its own 30-yard line. The Terps won field position margin by roughly a quarter-field.
Perry Hills, Maryland's starting quarterback, acknowledged Likely on offense is more fun conceptually than in practice.
"You know, he's playing defense, special teams — he's doing a lot right now," Hills said. "But he's a playmaker. It would be nice to have another playmaker on offense, but I'm not sure that's going to happen."
If Likely played even one-tenth of Maryland's offensive snaps last week, he'd have been in on well more than 70 plays – a stiff workload for someone who chases around the other team's best receiver for most of that time. Against up-tempo teams like coming opponent Bowling Green, which ran 85 plays in 26 minutes last week, it might be impossible.
So, don't hold your breath. Likely did appear to get one receiving target in 2014 (the ball was not caught), but using him on offense regularly – or even semi-regularly – goes against commonsense medical thinking and risk assessment. Then again, Likely's dominance defies common sense on its own. He'll still help Maryland's offense in myriad ways.
"Will, he's an athlete. He really is," Hills said. "He's very shifty and hard to bring down, and you would think that because he's a smaller guy, he's just going to get tackled, but he breaks tackles and makes plays. So it's really, really nice having him out there, being able to get good field position so that we're closer to drive the ball down into the end zone."