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Terps' Will Likely focuses on an NFL career as he continues rehab from torn ACL

Injured Will Likely will return to the field as one of 22 players Maryland will honor on Senior Day.

The dreams began almost immediately.

In them, Will Likely III was running, fast and always effortlessly, as he did for more than three seasons on the Maryland football team. The dreams would each end the same way — abruptly. Likely would wake up in a darkened room, his right knee still hurting, his college career still over.

"For about two weeks straight, every day I dreamed about either running or just playing football," Likely recalled. "It was crazy, like the first time it happened, it just felt like weird, I woke up and I tried to move, I looked at my leg and it was like, 'I can't even move.'"

They happened nearly from the day Likely left Maryland Stadium in a brace on Oct. 15 after a 31-10 loss to Minnesota, hoping that the pain would subside and he would be able to return in a few weeks.

Deep down, Likely feared his season was over.

A few days later, an MRI confirmed what Likely figured after he came to the sideline: a torn ACL.

On Saturday, Likely will return to the field as one of 22 players Maryland will honor on senior day before its regular season finale against Rutgers. Likely's career, which included twice being named as an All-Big Ten cornerback and once as an All-American return specialist, as well setting a host of team records, will be celebrated.

"It's going to be fun," said Likely, who expects several family members to make the trip from Belle Glade, Fla. "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 a park back home never knowing that he was going to be at Maryland. It's a blessing. I'm more proud for that."

But when the pregame ceremony ends, Likely will retreat to the sideline to watch his team play. Once seemingly guaranteed to hear his name called in next year's NFL draft, the future is suddenly clouded by injury.

Likely still believes he will be playing in the NFL, possibly as soon as next season.

"That's going to come, right now it's just rehabbing and getting back right," he said of his NFL career. "Once I get there, once it happens, there's no doubt in my mind what's going to happen. Right now it's just trying to get back as healthy as possible."

After the injury occurred when he was tackled following a muffed fair catch, Likely acknowledged, the transition from star player to patient to rehab warrior was difficult.

"When I first hurt it, I basically knew like the first day after like an hour of moping around, it was on to the next step," he said, talking to reporters in his first interview since the injury occurred. "Ever since then, I never thought of anything, except what's next. That's the most exciting part, trying to just work. I'm a competitor so I'm going to challenge myself to get back. That's been the fun part so far."

Will Likely Jr. said it has been tough as a parent watching his son go through the process that began shortly after he was operated on by Dr. Craig Bennett, Maryland’s team doctor, whom the elder father said performed the surgery at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute in Baltimore.

“You hate to see your kids go through anything especially if it’s something that hinders a childhood dream that’s on the fingertips of being a reality,” Will Likely Jr. wrote in an email Friday. “The process of No. 4 making it to the next level is different now. But no matter how different it seems, that same work has to be put in place to succeed.”        

First-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin said it is still difficult to talk about Likely's injury.

"That's a hard one for me to talk about without me getting emotional about it, to be honest with you," Durkin said. "Not a finer young man and a competitor, just a guy that's about all the right things, obviously a great player as well. It's tough, to see him in here every day, rehabbing every day and getting his knee ready. It tears your guts out when you see him. It just does."

As is his nature, Likely would rather look at those who came back from the same knee injury.

Likely uses such ACL success stories as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller as motivation.

"Seeing that they had their best [year] the year after they tore their ACL, it's just a little bit motivation," Likely said.

Likely also heard almost immediately after the injury happened from two of his former high school teammates at Glades Central who are now in the NFL, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and San Diego Chargers return specialist Travis Benjamin.

"They both had ACL tears and they reached out when they first heard about [mine] and just gave me the process of what it will take," Likely said. "It's definitely been true so far."

During the week leading up to Saturday's game, Likely's teammates showed a montage of his career highlights, many from when he was a sophomore and was tied for the Big Ten lead with six interceptions and led the league in interception return yardage with 170, including two for touchdowns.

It motivated Likely.

"It definitely drives me to want to move and be better than the player that I was before," he said. "It will be a new version of Will Likely."

The recovery time from ACL surgery to being able to participate in contact drills for college or professional football is typically 7 1/2 to 10 months. Likely said he has been informed by his doctor and physical therapists that he is about "2 ½ weeks" ahead of schedule.

"Just being patient with the process, not trying to rush back or anything, just make sure I'm 100 percent," he said. "We've got a great training staff. They've actually restricted me from doing a lot of stuff because they know I try to push myself so hard. It's challenging because it's a process and I have to keep reminding myself of that."

Asked if he has ever second-guessed his decision to return for his senior year when he might have been drafted into the NFL, Likely is pragmatic, offering that the same injury could have happened had he turned pro.

"I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," he said. "Who knows? I could have torn it in the NFL this year. That's the game we play. I know what comes with it. I'm definitely excited and by the time I come back, I know I'll be 10 times stronger than I was before and be a better football player. It'll all turn out for the best."

Rehabilitation has become another form of two-a-days for Likely. He said he treats the sessions, which begin at 9 a.m. and end around 5 or 6 p.m., "like a job." The exercises, geared toward helping Likely recover his strength and range of motion, can be both tedious and difficult.

While Durkin and defensive coordinator Andy Buh said Likely has remained one of the team's leaders, his rehab schedule often prevents him from mentoring the team's young secondary.

But before the team left for last week's game at Nebraska — a 28-7 loss that saw the Terps play some of their best defense since Likely was hurt — Likely delivered a stirring speech about how fortunate they are to be going to college and playing football.

"That's one of those things where I just wanted to let the team know, it's human nature that you take things for granted, like the small things," Likely said. "Those are still my peers, and that's still my team and my teammates. I wanted to share the inside from a person they've been around each and every day that you can be playing and the next day you can barely move your leg."

Said Durkin, "Will's got a bright future ahead of him. I totally believe he has football in his career ahead of him. I also believe that whatever he does in life he'll be successful."

Will Likely Jr. said there’s been a different kind of divine intervention involved with his son after the injury.

“God placed him in this situation for a reason and [Will III] understands that,” the elder Likely emailed. “So I told him that there is no testimony without test.”

Likely, who no longer has the dreams that started after his injury, said he is grateful to have his health and, he firmly still believes, a future in the NFL.

"I've learned a lot throughout a short break [from playing football], people helping me to refocus and work on my body more and work on all the little stuff. Be thankful for the game," he said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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