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3 big questions Maryland football faces after Will Likely’s injury

We don’t necessarily know the answers yet.

NCAA Football: Richmond at Maryland Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Will Likely has a torn ACL, and the Maryland football team will be without its best defensive player for the rest of 2016. He’s played his final game in a Maryland uniform, and the team has to find a way to keep going without him.

His loss will affect the team in a variety of ways. He’s the team’s third-leading tackler and has as many tackles for loss as either of the team’s starting linebackers. Through six games, he led the Terps with three pass break-ups. Likely didn’t have many chances to return punts or kicks, but he was still a threat every time he went back to receive the ball.

Likely’s loss raises some questions, and we don’t necessarily have the answers yet.

Who takes Likely’s spot at nickel corner?

Maryland’s three best cornerbacks are now Alvin Hill, JC Jackson and Tino Ellis, in some order. But it won’t necessarily be as simple as one of them shifting over to Likely’s position. His spot at nickel corner has different responsibilities than the men on the outside have, and it’s not always easy to just kick someone inside if he hasn’t been practicing there.

Freshman Elisha Daniels came in as Likely’s replacement against Minnesota, though that certainly doesn’t guarantee he’ll be starting against Michigan State.

Daniels could end up starting in Likely’s place, as could sophomore RaVon Davis, who was listed in competition with Daniels behind Likely on this week’s depth chart. It’s also possible one of the trio of Hill, Jackson or Ellis does end up starting in Likely’s place.

Additionally, there’s a chance Maryland plays more of a base 4-3 defense instead of its normal nickel, but given DJ Durkin’s previous defensive strategies at Michigan, that might not be too, uh, likely. Nickel defense seems like Durkin’s thing, and I don’t think he’s going to change from that even if he doesn’t have the ideal personnel.

What’s going to happen to Maryland’s pretty good pass defense?

The Terps have the No. 24 pass defense in the nation, according to Bill Connelly’s advanced metrics. The defensive backs didn’t have many interceptions (2), but they were effective at shutting teams down. Hill and Jackson were a solid combination on the outside, and Ellis impressed last week after beating Jackson out for his spot in practice. Maryland was able to shut down Minnesota’s passing offense last week with Ellis, Daniels and Qwuantrezz Knight, three freshmen, playing together a lot. But a Gophers offense led by its backup quarterback is hardly a test, and Michigan State won’t be quite so easy.

Maryland’s run defense has been far less than stellar this season, and things could get worse if the Terps can’t stop the pass either.

What about the Terps’ return game?

Kick and punt returns are how Likely became one of the most famous athletes on Maryland’s campus in the past decade. Doing a solid job in coverage will get you praise from coaches, but bringing a kick back for a score will get you on SportsCenter.

This season, Maryland’s opponents have done a great job of avoiding him or covering punts well enough that Likely’s had almost no success. (The Terps rank 65th and 93rd, respectively, in punt return and kick return success rate.) Maryland’s return execution hasn’t given him much of a chance, either. Teldrick Morgan and D.J. Moore took a lot of those responsibilities from him after he went out against Minnesota, and they might continue to do that against Michigan State. They’re fast and can make defenders miss, but neither of them is Will Likely. Maryland needed some improvement here, and without Likely, that’s going to be even harder to come by.

We won’t know the answer to any of these questions at least until Maryland’s defense takes the field against Michigan State, and it could take longer than that.