Will Likely doesn’t take long to get going.
In a literal sense, the Terrapins football cornerback has exceptional acceleration, which he displayed on a 45-yard kick return in Saturday’s 32-21 win at Connecticut. Likely uses that talent on defense, too, often quickly changing direction to shadow opposing receivers and make up for his slight 5-foot-7, 175-pound frame.
Likely has been just as quick in his assimilation to the college game. The true freshman has impressed coaches with his knowledge and competitiveness since arriving on the campus in the spring, and in his second career game he earned the defensive game ball for his 11-tackle performance against Old Dominion on Sept. 7.
So when Likely steps in as a starting cornerback this week against West Virginia to replace injured veterans Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson, there is no reason to think he won’t produce in his new role.
“He plays like he’s a seasoned veteran,” coach Randy Edsall said Tuesday. “He’s very knowledgeable; he’s a great listener; he understands it.”
Edsall also said that because of Likely’s performance and attitude in practice, he wasn’t surprised that the Belle Glade, Fla., native has played well in games. And Likely doesn’t appear bound for a drop-off after he followed up his dominant effort against the Monarchs with another solid outing against UConn. Serving as the nickel back against the Huskies, Likely had two tackles and no noticeable lapses in coverage.
Likely rarely shows emotion when speaking with the media, using a low, serious voice. He always opts to discuss the importance of the upcoming game, and his mind never seems to stray from his role on the field. If anything from a game bothers him, it never seems to stay with him.
It’s like he’s not even a freshman.
Asking defensive players about the Terps’ secondary situation without McDougle and Johnson has become a pointless practice. Each one brings up Likely’s name and mentions how confidently he plays and how mature he seems.
“I’m not worried at all,” outside linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil said Tuesday. “Will Likely — I’m 100 percent confident that he’s going to do his job. He showed that against Old Dominion.”
The stoic Likely was a quick learner well before he came to College Park. After all, his dominant day against Old Dominion’s spread offense wasn’t the first time he’s had double-digit tackles as a young player at a new level.
“My freshman year in states against Cocoa [(Fla.) High School],” Likely said after the Old Dominion game, thinking back to his days at Glades Central High School, “I had like 12 tackles.”
And that’s rather impressive, considering Likely’s high school competition in Florida was a bit stiffer than what prep players face in this state.
There was one point this season, though, at which Likely actually looked the part of a first-year player. In the season opener against Florida International, Likely was mistakenly sent onto the field to return the game’s first punt, while All-ACC returner Stefon Diggs remained on the sideline.
Likely misplayed the punt, and the Panthers recovered the ensuing fumble, a possession they turned into their first three points of the game. It was Likely’s first chance to make an impact play on a college game, and he instead gave the opponents an edge.
But so often with freshmen, it’s not about the first mistake they make — it’s about how they respond. In the Terps’ next game, against the Monarchs, Edsall gave Likely another shot. He returned a punt 27 yards and a kick 43 yards in that game and hasn’t fumbled since.
“Will he make mistakes? Yes, just like every player, but it’s not a surprise how he’s playing,” Edsall said. “That’s just how the kid practices. If we had everybody practice the way he practices and the way he competes, we’d be even better.”
He bounces back from muffed punts with big returns, and he’s begun his career on the defensive side of the ball by recording two pass breakups and 16 tackles in three games.
It’s been a relatively remarkable start for Likely, but ask him why he’s been so good or why he stays so confident, and he has a simple answer.
“I’ve been playing the game since I was 5, so it’s the same football, just against different people,” Likely said earlier this month. “It don’t make sense to get rattled up. Just go out there and do you.”
Likely will face a new challenge this week as he moves into the No. 2 cornerback spot against a talented Mountaineers team that uses an air-raid offense. But it’s the same football, so I wouldn’t bet against him.