Often during games last season, Maryland returner Stefon Diggs would hesitate near the goal line as the ball settled into his hands, assessing whether to down the kickoff in the end zone or take off with it.
During a key moment in a win over Virginia last season, Diggs chose the adventurous course — he often did — and sprinted 100 yards for a touchdown. The scoring play was Maryland's first kickoff return for a touchdown since Torrey Smith's in 2009 and the first 100-yard runback since Josh Wilson's in 2006.
This fall — with the return of Diggs and the arrival of Will Likely and Deon Long to complement him — Maryland believes the long return will be far less of a novelty than in years past.
Diggs, Likely and Long have been fielding punts and kicks during Maryland's spring practices, which end Friday night with the Red-White game at Byrd Stadium.
Likely is a 5-9, 165-pound freshman cornerback-returner who attracted attention by returning a kickoff 99 yards on ESPN while playing for Glades Central High School in Florida. He enrolled early at Maryland, making him eligible for spring workouts.
The 6-1, 180-pound Long, originally from Washington, D.C., is a receiver-returner signed after last season from Iowa Western Community College.
"Those are the three that we're really working with, so we have some depth," Coach Randy Edsall said Saturday after Maryland completed a two-hour practice on a sunny afternoon at Frederick County's Middletown High School that attracted about 1,700 spectators. "With those three guys, we have a chance to really do things in the return game. What we've got to do is get everyone to understand who is blocking that if they do a really good job, those (three) guys have a chance to really change field position and also score for us."
True to his aggressive nature, Diggs wants to return every punt and kick himself.
"If I can be back there every time, I would," Diggs said Saturday.
But Diggs is also realistic. Football players — even young ones like Diggs, who will be a sophomore in the fall — can wear down over a long season.
"It's good to have those guys (Likely and Long) in your arsenal and to bring some fresh legs into the game. I would appreciate some help," Diggs conceded with a broad smile. "I would like some help."
Diggs said of Likely: "He's just like me as a freshman. He can make plays just like I did."
Likely is small and quick. Since he plays defense, he said he relishes the chance to get his hands on the ball in the return game.
"That's a time you can actually show your ability," Likely said. "I've been doing it my whole life, so I'm kind of comfortable at both of them (kickoff and punt returns). The key is always the first block and the first move."
Long was not available for interviews after Saturday's practice.
Diggs was Maryland's leading receiver, punt returner and kick returner last year, ending with the second-most all-purpose yards (1,896) in a single season in program history behind Smith (2,192 in 2009).
As the season wound down, Maryland coaches were concerned about overusing Diggs, who injured his ankle and missed the Clemson game in November.
This fall, Maryland may insert different returners depending on the game situation.
"I don't know if Will would be a better punt returner than Stefon, and Stefon the better kick returner," Edsall said. " I think Will is a guy that could probably do both. Stefon might be a little better at kickoff returns than punt returns, and I think Deon the same way. Those are things we're going to continue to look at."
Notes: It was Maryland's second practice of the spring that was held away from campus, and the team was pleased with the turnout. Maryland earlier practiced at Dunbar on March 30. "We're definitely going to do it (practice at some off-campus sites) next year," Edsall said. "We'll sit down after (the) spring and figure out where we'll go next year, but this has been a huge success for us."…Tight end Dave Stinebaugh (Perry Hall) "rolled his ankle" during the practice, Edsall said. It is not known whether he will miss any time.
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