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Will Likely won’t play another down for Maryland football, and he’ll be missed

The Terps’ star corner and kick returner left a legacy in College Park, and he won’t soon be forgotten.

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

Will Likely has 174 tackles, 29 pass break-ups and seven career interceptions in his four years as a Maryland Terrapin. His team has at least one more game left this season, but he won’t ever add to those numbers.

When Maryland football takes the field in its regular season finale against Rutgers this Saturday, Likely will be watching from the sidelines.

The Terps’ star cornerback/kick returner/wide receiver has been roaming the hallways of the Gossett Football Team House in a knee brace since tearing his ACL against Minnesota on Oct. 15. For a player who eschewed a chance at the NFL to return for his senior season, this is a bittersweet end to a college career full of highlights and record-setting performances.

“That’s a hard one to talk about without me getting emotional about it, to be honest with you,” Maryland Coach DJ Durkin said in the days leading up to his team’s final regular season game against Rutgers. “Will Likely, there’s not a finer young man and a competitor, and just a guy who’s about all the right things, and obviously a great player as well.”

The 5’7 Likely is still around his teammates and coaches, who can only watch and absorb the information he’s willing to give.

“It’s tough,” Durkin said. “We still see him in here every day. He’s in rehabbing, getting his knee ready and all that, and it tears your guts out when you see him. It just does.”

“He’s sort of the metaphor for Maryland”

Likely’s injury didn’t appear to be serious when he suffered it returning a kickoff against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He caught the ball and ran into a pile, and then the broadcast flashed to a highlight from another game.

Fans probably didn’t think much of it. Likely wasn’t alarmed either — at first. He got up and exited the field with the rest of the kick return unit.

“I kind of felt weird a little bit, but it was more like you hit your funny bone,” Likely said. “I jogged off the field and got on the sidelines. That’s when I checked and that’s when it was throbbing.”

The broadcast then showed him working with trainers on the sidelines — the first evidence fans received that something could be wrong.

The trainers put him through some drills, having him run some high-knees before bringing him into the locker room. He would never return, and the Terps would lose handily.

Durkin didn’t give any updates on Likely’s condition throughout the next week of practice, which in itself wasn’t promising. Sure enough, the news came out the night before Maryland took on Michigan State: Likely had a torn ACL, and his career as a Terp was over.

This was tough news for a locker room that looked up to him as a leader on and off the field for four seasons, but that wasn’t all. This was depressing for a fanbase that knew Likely as a bolt of energy on a team that often alternated between frustrating and boring. No one is more emblematic of that fanbase than Scott Van Pelt, the SportsCenter anchor who goes out of his way to mention Maryland at every possible turn.

“It was just so disappointing,” Van Pelt told Testudo Times, “because he had a choice to make: should he stay, or should he go? And he decided to stay and then he gets hurt. But I mean, he’s sort of the metaphor for Maryland. He’s this undersized guy, maybe he gets overlooked a bit, and you rise above your circumstance. What does his Twitter bio say?”

“That’s sort of who he is,” Van Pelt said. “I root for him. I hope he gets a chance to play at the next level. He’s little, but there’s little guys in the league. He was the best player on bad teams, and there’s honor in that. It’s not his fault they didn’t have enough around him.”

Likely didn’t have to come back to Maryland. Defensive linemen Yannick Ngakoue and Quinton Jefferson both left for the NFL with eligibility remaining after last season. Likely wasn’t a slam-dunk NFL prospect after his junior year, probably due to his small stature. But his return was still a huge coup for Durkin, a first-year coach trying to win over a new team.

Van Pelt, furious Maryland fan as he is, always makes time in his busy schedule to visit his alma mater. He even stopped by to speak to the football team before its trip to play Nebraska. It’s fitting that he met up with Likely at Xfinity Center during a basketball game last season.

“It was fun to be able to tell him, ‘Hey, from a guy who loves Maryland, thank you.’ Because you stuck around and you didn’t have to,’” Van Pelt said. “And that was big for DJ, for a guy who was on the fence to stick around and buy in. So I don’t know. I’m a big Will Likely fan. I wish him luck first, and then hopefully a chance. A guy like that, just give him a chance, and who knows.”

maryland football spring game practice
Likely signs autographs after Maryland’s spring game.
Alexander Jonesi

Billed as a three-star recruit on the 247Sports Composite, Likely still received offers from a host of top schools including LSU, Miami and Stanford, though his size always appeared to be an issue for those programs. His 5’7 frame was always the biggest threat to his collegiate career, and powerhouse programs decided they didn’t want to take the risk. But Maryland, a program that needs to capitalize on overlooked recruits if it ever wants to compete with bigger schools, was glad to have him.

He halted any concerns about his size early on in his first season at Maryland. On a team that redshirted most freshmen, Likely played right away.

“He was a fast freshman, very intelligent for his age,” said redshirt senior cornerback Alvin Hill. “He understood the game pretty well. He was ready to complete, coming from Florida and everything like that. Some good instincts about him.”

At the same time, Likely was getting reps at nickel corner, a spot he’d return to during his senior season. His first college touchdown came on a punt return against Virginia Tech.

Injuries paved the way for a huge role for Likely. He was essentially the team’s No. 1 cornerback his freshman year after Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson went down, and Stefon Diggs’ broken leg handed Likely a spot as kick and punt returner.

With McDougle gone to the NFL after that season, Likely was permanently installed as a starting corner. Maryland’s defense reaped the benefits. His diminutive stature didn’t keep him from locking down opponents’ best receivers. He had six interceptions that year, drawing enough attention that teams started avoiding him by the time his junior season rolled around.

Likely didn’t have a single interception as a junior or senior, but he had 14 passes defensed. He was Maryland’s lockdown defender, even when the rest of the defense was getting dusted. Of course, he was still returning punts to the house and getting himself on SportsCenter.

People took notice. Sophomore safety Darnell Savage Jr., a Delaware native, was in the middle of his recruitment during Likely’s ascension.

“I remember watching the games. I was like, man, that guy’s short but he can ball,” Savage said with a smile. “He’s definitely one of the guys I looked up to during my recruiting process.”

Maryland defensive coordinator Andy Buh was at Cal during Likely’s first two seasons, and Kentucky in 2015. He was watching along, just like the high-schoolers.

“If you liked football and you watched TV, you knew who Will Likely was,” Buh said. “The things that stuck in my mind were the highlights I’ve watched on ESPN of him. But he’s more than that when you get to know him. He’s very intelligent. He carries himself well, he’s got a presence about him. Players and coaches gravitate to his personality.”

Likely kicked off his junior season by setting the Big Ten record for return yards with 233 against FCS squad Richmond. The national recognition started pouring in.

His return pace slowed as teams realized kicking away from him was the smarter option. He still ended up an All-American after his junior season for his efforts as a returner, and his name will stay forever at Maryland Stadium. He finishes his career with eight return touchdowns: four on punts, two on kickoffs and two off interceptions. Will Likely / Twitter

“All three phases”

Likely’s first snap on offense was an eight-yard carry against Ohio State in the Terps’ loss in Columbus last year.

“It started as a joke, but I was always dead serious,” Likely said before this season of his constant badgering of then-offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. “One day, I came up to his office leading up to the Ohio State game and said ‘Put me on offense. Whatever I have to learn, I have to learn.’ He saw that I was serious and it went [from there].”

He became more of a threat later in 2015, busting out a 43-yard run against Wisconsin. He didn’t get too many big gains on offense, but was always a troubling option that opposing defenses had to account for.

At Big Ten media day in July, Durkin confirmed that Likely would have “involvement in all three phases” once again.

He started at both cornerback and wide receiver in Maryland’s first two games this season, and was listed as a potential starter both ways on the depth chart each week until he suffered his injury. He didn’t end up with the ball often, only picking up two carries — one for two yards and one for 13. He caught one screen, which the defense snuffed out, for a loss of five yards. But the threat was always there.

Offensive coordinator Walt Bell saw the option to put the ball in the hands of the team’s most explosive player, and while he could, Bell did just that. But injuries to the secondary and the sheer burden of playing in all three phases eventually got to Likely.

“Early in the year as both sides started to get knocked down with injuries,” Bell said, “it really got to be where we couldn’t use him because he was having to play 90 snaps on defense, or 70 snaps or however many snaps on special teams. So we really weren’t able to use him as we had in the spring or fall camp.”

Likely didn’t get another touch after Maryland’s win over Central Florida in Week 3, but that didn’t necessarily mean his time on offense was over. It’s certainly possible Likely could have helped in Indiana against the Hoosiers, where the Terps blew a halftime lead.

“He’s as good as they come, and that’s a shame,” Bell said. “As you start getting into conference play and you start playing people where the talent level starts to swing in their favor a bit, he’s a great equalizer.”

Maryland can’t blame a lack of Will Likely for its nonexistent offense lately, but it’s still possible he could have helped.

“When you paint that picture of what you want in a teammate or a friend, or what you would imagine your heroes to be like, he is that guy,” Bell said. “He’s the star of his own movie.”

“I felt for him”

When Likely went down, the whole Maryland athletic community took notice. Athletes from other disciplines saw how important he was to the fabric of the Maryland sports landscape.

For the Maryland men’s basketball team, Likely’s injury hit close to home. Likely is the face of the football team’s promotional efforts. He’s front and center on posters, the same way Melo Trimble is for basketball.

“He meant a lot,” Trimble told Testudo Times. “He was the best player on the team. Kick returns, punt returns, played on defense, offense. He did a lot for the team. Just for him to go down like that with that kind of injury, it meant a lot to that organization, and obviously to our team as well, because we noticed it.

“I felt for him. I talked to Will a lot. He was close with Dez [Wells], and I got to know him, and just to hear something like that, it hurts.”

Likely was always a quiet guy, at least to the media. In that respect he’s not unlike Maryland’s star point guard.

“They’re shy,” center Damonte Dodd said. “They don’t talk a lot, but when it comes down to between the lines, they’ll voice their opinion.”

Matthew Holst/Getty Images

“It’s going to be fun to see how far I made it.”

In the five weeks since suffering the injury, Likely’s been around. But the first couple days were tough.

“I think he loves [football] so much that it hurts him to be around it,” Buh said. “That was one of the things he mentioned, that he had to stay away when it first happened. He just couldn’t come around because it hurt so bad.”

Likely painted a more positive picture while talking to reporters in his first public appearance since the injury. If he’s still sad, he didn’t show it.

“After an hour, after moping around, it was onto the next step and getting ready,” Likely said, “looking at all those guys who had ACL tears and using that as motivation to get back.”

A torn ACL is by no means a death sentence in football. The injury’s become common over the past 10 years, and Likely’s taking solace in that.

After suffering the injury, he heard from his high school teammates Kelvin and Travis Benjamin, both of whom are having successful NFL careers after tearing their ACLs. Likely looked up NFL players who suffered the injury, noting their quick recoveries and success after surgery.

“Guys like Von Miller, Adrian Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Seeing they all had their best [season] the year after they tore their ACL. It’s a little motivation.”

All three resumed their NFL careers without missing a beat. For Likely, this will be another challenge. And this one sure does come at an inopportune time.

The NFL Draft is in five months, with pro day and the combine even sooner. Likely says he hasn’t started going in-depth on what that all means, but at some point, he’ll have to.

For now, all he can do is continue to rehab his knee. As Likely completes his final two college credits before graduating in December, that’s his full-time job. “From nine to five, sometimes nine to six,” he’s doing something rehab-related. When he’s not rehabbing, Likely’s been helping out the rest of the defensive backs.

“I still watch film like I’m preparing,” he says. “Not just for me, but for the younger guys, help them on formation recognition and how to study a receiver, or how to study their opponent. I’m in there as much as them, staying after rehab, making sure I watch practice.”

After practice, he’ll text the younger defensive backs with suggestions about what they can work on. Maryland’s secondary is talented, but inexperienced. The underclassmen will surely soak in all the help they can get while Likely’s still around.

Likely’s senior day will be full of bittersweet moments. If the team wins and goes to a bowl game, he’s still going to be on the sidelines — not out on the field.

He’ll make his way out to the middle of Capital One Field with his parents for Saturday’s senior day ceremony, where he’ll hear a roar from the fans who’ve cheered him these past four years. The post-Thanksgiving matchup is usually sparsely attended by students, but Likely is assured to get a thunderous applause nonetheless.

“It’s going to be fun,” Likely said. “Obviously I want to play, but other than that it’s going to be fun to see how far I made it. From a little kid in the park back home, never knew he was going to be up at Maryland.”