Will Likely’s final punt return as a Maryland Terrapin was muffed, recovered in the red zone by the kicking team and quickly turned into seven points. His last kickoff return for the Terps was unspectacular, as the senior brought the ball from the goal line to the 21. Inconspicuously, he limped off the field, never to play for Maryland again.
This all feels so wrong.
Likely’s time in College Park was anything but unspectacular, anything but inconspicuous. He brought explosiveness to all three phases of the game. He was an all-conference defender and an All-American return man. Every time he touched the ball, a big play was in the realm of possibility. Likely returned for his senior season to deliver these thrills for one more year. While he was consistently one of the team’s best players, he never had that show-stopping moment. It seemed like one was inevitable, though. Sooner or later.
For Maryland fans, that thirst will now remain perpetually unquenched.
Likely did just about everything right as a Terp. At 5’7, 175 pounds, he had to work his way to the top of the sport, and he did. He currently holds six school records and was on his way to breaking others. Every time he was given something new to do, he made the most of his task and added it to his game. Likely returned for his senior season because he believed in the program’s direction and wanted to “finish what he started” with his teammates.
“We probably couldn’t spend enough time here talking about all he means to this program and this university, and what he’s done in his career here,” head coach DJ Durkin said after Saturday’s game.
No one deserves a career-ending injury, but for Likely to suffer one seems borderline criminal.
A post-Likely Maryland squad took down Michigan State on Saturday. Likely was there, but could only watch from the sidelines as his team played one of its best games of the season.
“We definitely had him in our thoughts,” cornerback Alvin Hill said after the game. “He was a great friend to me, he taught me a lot. He makes up a big portion of our team ... so we definitely had him in mind when we went out and got that win for him.”
The pass defense was solid, even without Likely or Denzel Conyers or Darnell Savage, who limped off the field in the first quarter. Hill picked off a pass early on, and JC Jackson forced a game-changing fumble in the third quarter when the Spartans were threatening inside Maryland’s 5-yard line. RaVon Davis held his own at the nickel, although the Terps ran more three-linebacker sets with Likely gone. The team seemed to play inspired rather than heavy-hearted.
“To lose Will Likely on this team, you would think just deflate the sails, everyone just head down,” Durkin said. “Or you can take the response of ‘Let’s not let this guy down.’ We love him so much that we’re gonna make sure we don’t make it all for naught; we’re gonna go play hard for him. And that’s the approach they took.”
It was still jarring not to see Likely back deep on kicks and punts. D.J. Moore returned two kickoffs for a total of 30 yards, while Teldrick Morgan gained only three yards on his lone punt return. These plays are usually non-events, but Likely had a way of making them the most exciting moments of the game. That anticipation simply wasn’t there on Saturday.
Sure, Likely isn’t completely gone from this team, and his football career isn’t entirely over. Recovering from a torn ACL usually takes nine months or so. This timeline would have Likely ready to take part in NFL training camp, but he won’t be healthy before the draft, so any pro team that takes him will have nothing more recent than the Minnesota game to go off of. It’s a little cruel to look at Likely’s situation and think about “draft stock,” a man-made and arbitrary concept, but there’s no denying that suffering the injury that he did, when he did, comes at a heavy cost.
In the short term, Maryland currently sits at 5-2, just one win from bowl eligibility in Durkin’s first year. The secondary is young and unproven, but players like Davis, Qwuantrezz Knight and Josh Woods have made the most of their opportunities. Several questions still linger, though, and one win won’t eradicate them.
The loss of Likely doesn’t single-handedly make this team that much worse. Maryland still has a bevy of exciting playmakers, from Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison to Moore and Morgan, who can escape would-be tacklers and excel in open space.
But none of those guys is Will Likely. His shoes can be filled, but he can’t be replaced. He was one of the most electric players in recent Maryland history, and to see his career end like this is heartbreaking.