COLLEGE PARK — Richmond's opening kickoff Saturday bounced and settled inside the 5-yard line, finding a Bermuda Triangle of sorts among Maryland's speedy kick returners. It seemed like the perfect start for the Spiders with the opportunity to trap the Terps deep in their own territory to start the game.
"It's an absolute perfect kick," Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. "It was a single-high return scheme, and he found the soft spot."
Will Likely, though, had other ideas. The redshirt junior gathered the ball, made some nifty moves and bounced it around to the right sideline for a 42-yard return. It set the tone for a historic afternoon during Maryland's 50-21 victory over Richmond at Byrd Stadium.
Likely returned eight punts for 233 yards and two kickoffs for 63 yards, giving him 296 all-purpose yards on just 10 touches. He gained at least 15 yards nine out of the 10 times he had the ball in his hands. He broke the Big Ten Conference single-game record for punt return yardage of 201, which was set by Iowa legend Nile Kinnick during his Heisman Trophy season in 1939. And it could have been more if a lengthy second-quarter return hadn't been cut back to 27 yards because of a penalty.
So how did Likely do it? And why did Richmond keep kicking to him even though it was clear he was a touchdown waiting to happen every time he touched the ball?
The latter question is perhaps an easier place to start. According to Rocco, Spiders punter D.J. Helkowski was actually attempting to punt away from Likely and punt out of bounds. The ball just didn't make it there.
"For the last three punts, I told him to punt it out of bounds, but it didn't get out of bounds," Rocco said. "I guess we just have to practice punting out of bounds a little more."
Likely, who said the Spiders "tricked me too" by continuing to punt to him, returned those three punts one yard after he muffed it, 67 yards for his touchdown and 35 yards before his tripped up from behind with open field in front of him.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall said it's difficult to punt out of bounds while also attempting to keep distance on it. Likely remarked that Helkowski seemed to be outkicking his coverage. So that's how the most dangerous player on the field Saturday ended up with the ball in his hands time after time.
Now for the former question. Since his freshman year in College Park, Likely has been doing a drill where he has to catch punts while also holding tennis balls in each hand. It's to increase the difficulty of the task and force him to concentrate more positioning himself perfectly under the kick.
"It was kind of a struggle my freshman year," Likely said. "I could catch the ball, but it was more of keeping focus. Just reading the ball, reading the nose, knowing where the ball is going to go. When you have the tennis balls, you can't really cheat the process. You have to actually look all the way in and relate to that in the game."
Likely was also able to take advantage of Maryland's roster for extra preparation during the week. Helkowski is left-footed, which Edsall said creates a completely different spin on the ball compared to a right-footed punter, so Likely caught punts from left-footed freshman Nicolas Rubinowicz all week to prepare.
It paid off. Likely was able to read most of Helkowski's punts and put himself in the perfect position for returns. The lone miscue came on his third-to-last return, when Likely couldn't quite get to a kick after a long run and bobbled it before falling down for only a one-yard return.
"I thought he made that one bad decision today where he was running really, really hard and he's just got great confidence in himself and he bobbled that one," Edsall said. "That's one where I know he's got confidence, but you're just better off fair catching that one when you got to go that far to get it. But the biggest thing is he works at it, he studies it. He's very, very coachable."
The biggest question for Likely moving forward is if teams will continue to kick to him. In one game, he surpassed his season total from last year in punt return yards (210) and his 663 career punt return yards move him up to fifth place on the program's all-time list. His three punt return touchdowns move him into a tie for second place in Maryland history behind Steve Suter's six.
Later this season, Likely will step onto the field in the stadium named for Kinnick when Maryland faces Iowa on Halloween. Kinnick was a legend who died at 24 years old during a World War II training flight.
And Likely seemed to realize he entered rarified air when he broke Kinnick's record.
"1939?" Likely said. "That's a long time. It's a blessing to be able to break somebody's record that had been standing for that long and hadn't been broken. That's a blessing."