Cleared by doctors, former Terps cornerback-returner Will Likely III signs with Patriots

Less than seven months after his college career ended and his NFL potential seemed imperiled by a serious knee injury, former Maryland cornerback and return specialist Will Likely III has been given a new lease on his football life — by the Super Bowl champions, no less.

The New England Patriots announced on their website Monday that the team has signed Likely in advance of its three-day minicamp that starts today. The Patriots will hold their organized team activities next week.

According to Chad Wiestling, the former Maryland football player who is Likely’s agent, the two-time All-Big Ten cornerback and All-America return specialist was cleared by doctors Thursday for all physical activity.

The Patriots were one of several teams to contact Wiestling on Friday, and the player was brought to Foxborough, Mass., over the weekend.

“He was finally cleared on Thursday, that’s what the hang-up’s been,” Wiestling said in a telephone interview Monday. “Early on Friday morning, the Patriots called and said they wanted to sign him. It happened real quick. He’ll be on the field returning punts and playing in the secondary.”

Likely had visited the New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams before being cleared, Wiestling said.

“There were a few other teams in the mix. They said, ‘Let us know [if he gets cleared],’” the agent said.

Wiestling said he and Likely had talked about how they thought the Patriots would be a great landing spot, given coach Bill Belichick’s penchant for using players in multiple positions.

During his career at Maryland, Likely showed his ability to play on defense, offense (where he was used as a slot receiver and running back) and special teams. The versatility could help his chances of making the team.

“On June 5, some teams might look better than others on paper,” Wiestling said. “Even before the draft, if there was one team that Will and I spoke about that would be a perfect fit for Will Likely, it was the New England Patriots with Coach Belichick.

“He will find a spot for Will. I could see Will playing offense, playing on different packages on defense and obviously being a kick returner and punt returner. Coach Belichick does that with players. Some other teams wouldn’t take that chance.”

Likely was signed to a free-agent contract, which is not guaranteed.

Because of the nature of his knee injury — a tear of both the ACL and MCL — and the fact that Likely is only 5 feet 7 and 175 pounds, a player that NFL.com ranked before the 2016 season as the sixth-most versatile in college football went undrafted.

Now, Likely will try to show that the last memory of his football career history won’t be of him crumpled on the field in the second quarter of a homecoming loss to Minnesota last season at Maryland Stadium after being tackled following a muffed fair catch.

The former Florida high school star, who played for Glades Central program that produced several college stars and NFL standouts, broke or shared several Maryland school records as well as a single-game Big Ten record of 233 yards in punt returns. That record had stood for 76 years.

In a text Monday, Maryland coach DJ Durkin wrote: “I’m extremely happy for Will and his family. I know much hard work he put in and this is a very well-deserved opportunity. Will has a great career ahead of him.”

Dr. Craig Bennett, the Maryland team physician who operated on Likely on Oct. 20, was hopeful Likely would be back on the field by mid-July.

“This could be a 10-month injury, a multiligament injury,” Bennett said Monday night. “I wouldn’t have been shocked if he weren’t ready until July 15th, with June 15th on the early end, so this is quite early. But I’m not surprised because of how hard he worked and how strong he is.”

 don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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