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Maryland football’s opponents aren’t kicking to Will Likely in 2016

He’s averaging less than one return per game.

Maryland v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Will Likely is known for many things. His name makes people do a double take the first time they hear it. His 5’7 stature makes him the shortest starter on Maryland football’s defense. And he’s one of the most versatile weapons in all of college football.

At cornerback, the senior has seven career interceptions, six of which came during a sophomore campaign that earned him a First Team All-Big Ten nod. Likely is a wild card on offense: he’ll often see a few snaps every game, be it as a slot receiver (where he’s regularly listed on the depth chart) or in the backfield. He had 93 yards on 11 carries in 2015, and although he only has 10 scrimmage yards on two carries and a reception this season, the threat remains.

He’s at his most dangerous in the return game, though. Likely has returned four punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns during his career, and has returned two interceptions for scores as well. Last year, he averaged 18.2 yards per runback, third-best in the country, and his two punt-return scores were tied for second (he also took a kickoff to the house).

Every Maryland opponent is keenly aware of this, and the strategy seems to be to kick the ball away from him. Likely returned 35 kickoffs and 23 punts in 11 games last year; he has one of each through three games in 2016. That’s hard to do, because the majority of drives end either in a punt or a score that necessitates a kickoff (the only other outcome is a turnover). Likely is almost always back deep on punts and takes his fair share of kicks, so for him to be so limited is quite astonishing.

Maryland’s defense forced six Howard punts in the first half of the season opener. Two were fair-caught by Likely; they had traveled just 29 and 31 yards. Two more punts sailed out of bounds, one took a forward bounce after Likely let it go and was downed at the 2-yard line, and the other was blocked and walked in for a touchdown.

A similar story unfolded against FIU and UCF: most punts are either angled away from Likely or short enough that someone’s already close to him. UCF also went for it on fourth down a lot, and Knights punter Mac Loudermilk also ran an unsuccessful (and possibly uncalled) fake punt. Avoiding Likely in the return game probably wasn’t the main motive for these decisions, but it easily could have factored into the decision.

Likely’s only kickoff return of 2016 was at the start of the second half against UCF. He returned it 64 yards, bringing the Terps to the UCF 33 (that drive ended in a missed Adam Greene field goal). After that, the Knights’ next two kickoffs were squibbed. Likely had to pounce on one at the 25 just to ensure the possession, and Jake Funk scooped the other up at the 18. (The faked punt happened after Likely’s big return, too, for whatever that’s worth).

This sort of avoidance is similar to a slugger in baseball getting intentionally walked, and the degree to which it’s happening to Likely is reminiscent of 2004 Barry Bonds, who was handed first base in nearly 20 percent of his plate appearances (and walked 38 percent of the time overall). It’s impossible to determine exactly how many of the fair-caught or out-of-bounds punts were intentional, but if UCF’s short kickoffs are any indication, the number is more than a few.

It will be very interesting to see to what extent this trend continues during Big Ten play, when the punters have stronger legs and the coverage teams are significantly better. It’s also unclear if Likely will remain the primary kickoff returner, as Ty Johnson and D.J. Moore have also seen action in that role so far. But there’s almost no way he keeps getting less than one chance per game. Starting with the Purdue game, Maryland fans will likely see more of him in the open field, and that’s a very exciting thing.