Amid the excitement of Maryland’s first night football game under coach DJ Durkin came sobering news Friday: senior cornerback Will Likely III will be out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, ending his career as a Terp.
Likely, who returned to College Park after a record-setting junior year to get his degree and improve his position in the 2017 NFL draft, was injured early in the second quarter of last week’s 31-10 home loss to Minnesota after muffing a punt return.
Looking to end a two-game losing streak after starting 4-0 in Durkin’s first season, Maryland will host slumping Michigan State (2-4, 0-3) Saturday night at 7:30. The Spartans will be trying to break a four-game losing streak, the longest in coach Mark Dantonio’s 10 years with the program.
An athletic department spokesman said that the status of fifth-year senior quarterback Perry Hills, who sat out last week after reinjuring his right shoulder in a 38-14 loss at Penn State two weeks ago, will be a “game-time” decision, according to Durkin.
True freshman Tyrrell Pigrome has played in Hills’ absence since the end of the first half of the game against the Nittany Lions.
While continuing to list Hills and Likely as starters for Michigan State through Thursday, Durkin said Monday that the training staff and team doctors were still trying to determine what “course of action” would be taken regarding the two injured players.
On Thursday, Durkin said that he hoped to have the status of one of the players figured out by Friday.
Unfortunately, it turned out to concern Likely.
In a statement released by the athletic department Friday that announced Likely’s season-ending injury, Durkin said, "In the short time I've been here at Maryland, I understand and have a great appreciation for the significant impact Will Likely has had on our football program.
“Will was one of the first people I met with when I accepted this job and it was quickly apparent how much he meant to his teammates and Maryland football.”
Likely came into his final season hoping to build on his resume as a two-time All-Big Ten cornerback and All-America return specialist last year while continuing to add to his repertoire by contributing as a slot receiver. As a junior, Likely was third in the nation in combined kick- and punt-return yards with 1,197.
Though Likely led the Terps in pass breakups and passes defended this season – three of each – and was third on the team with 32 tackles, he had only one long kickoff return (64 yards against Central Florida, while the other seven attempts went for 155 yards) and opposing teams had not given him much room to work with on punt returns (eight returns for 26 yards).
Despite what he had shown offensively last season, particularly after then offensive coordinator Mike Locksley became the team’s interim coach when Randy Edsall was fired, Likely had played a limited role this season. In six games, Likely had caught just one pass, losing five yards, and had two rushes for 15 yards.
As as junior, Likely was one of the few reasons for Maryland fans to watch a 3-8 team.
Starting with a single-game Big Ten record 233 yards in punt returns in the season opener against Richmond, Likely had three returns for touchdowns – two on punts as well as a 100-yard return against Iowa. Likely finished with six school records, and is second in kickoff return yardage (2,233) to Torrey Smith.
Likely’s two interception returns for touchdowns is tied for the most in school history and his 170 yards after the three passes he picked off as a sophomore is a school record. Both of the interception returns for touchdowns came during his sophomore year – an 88-yarder against Syracuse and a 45-yarder against Iowa.
Likely also had one interception as a freshman, but none as a junior or a senior. It was largely the result of the respect opposing teams showed for the 5-foot-7, 176-pound cornerback who as a junior at Glades Central High in Belle Glade was Florida’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
Mainly because of his size, Likely was considered a mid-to-late round NFL draft prospect had he decided to leave after his junior season.
Because of the recovery and rehabilitation time for a torn ACL – typically six to nine months or longer – Likely will not be able to show off his athleticism at the NFL combine in late February and might not even be fully recovered for Maryland’s Pro Day in the spring.
The loss of Likely will be a blow to a defense that is already without senior safety Denzel Conyers, who suffered a torn ACL last month at UCF.
Likely’s place on defense is expected to be taken by sophomore RaVon Davis or true freshman Elijah Daniels. Likely’s job as a returner is expected to be filled by either senior Teldrick Morgan (Meade) or sophomore D.J. Moore.
Speaking about Likely’s absense for nearly three quarters last week, defensive coordinator Andy Buh said Wednesday, “Obviously losing Will in a football game, that’s a major hit to us because he does have a presence about him and he’s been here. Guys look up to him and listen to him.”
For now, he will be relegated to being a mentor and unofficial coach for his teammates.
“He will continue to play a vital role in our program as we lean on him for his leadership and experience,” Durkin said in a statement. “I am confident Will has the work ethic, drive and focus to overcome this injury and continue his football career at the next level.”
Buh recalled hearing what some of Likely’s teammates were saying on the sideline last week after the Maryland captain was injured.
“I overhead guys saying, ‘Let’s do this for Will, let’s battle for him’,” Buh said. “That’s kind of been our motto. We’re a team, we’re together. One guy does not make our football team, definitely not our defense. But losing a leader like that in a football game, I thought we had just to move on. I thought our guys responded in that situation.”