COLLEGE PARK — The burst is nearly back, evidenced by the fact that Will Likely III appeared faster in his 40-yard dash at Maryland’s pro day Wednesday than almost every other former Terp trying out in front of representatives from 30 NFL teams at Cole Field House.
The quiet bravado with which the 5-foot-7 Likely carried himself during the 3½ seasons he played before tearing his ACL as a senior in 2016 might take awhile to return. Given what Likely has endured in the past 18 months, that’s to be expected.
A year after Likely was limited to a few position drills at pro day because he wasn’t yet fully recovered from the knee injury, the former All-Big Ten cornerback and All-America returner smiled when asked about how different he felt this time.
“It feels different because last year I wasn’t 100 percent,” said Likely, who a year ago was only six months into what is typically a nine-to-12-month rehabilitation process. “This year I was back to normal, actually more than back to normal. I feel like this was my real pro day.”
I want to get back, so I’m hungry for it. That’s the only thing my focus was at, and still [is] on, that's the only thing I know right now.
Will Likely III on returning to football from an ACL tear in 2016
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Likely, who many believe would have gone in the first three or four rounds of the NFL draft had he left after his junior year, wound up going undrafted. After appearing briefly with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns in workouts, Likely was cut in training camp by the New England Patriots.
“It was a good experience,” Likely said of his time with the Patriots, when he estimates he was about “probably 80” percent recovered. “Not everybody gets to go to an organization like that. I learned a lot from that. It was definitely a humbling and good experience for me.”
Tony Villani, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based trainer who has worked with Likely for around 11 months, said in an interview Wednesday that former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin introduced him to the former Maryland star. Likely grew up in the same town, Belle Glade, Fla., as Boldin, who retired last season.
“Anquan Boldin brought him to me and said, ‘His knee is good, but he’s not the same guy anymore,’ ” Villani recalled. “At that time, it was more getting ready for a football season because I thought he’d get picked up. It wasn’t really getting him in 40 [-yard] shape.”
In the past month, as Likely prepared for pro day, a lot of time was spent on getting his speed and agility back. Villani said Likely trains five to six days a week, two to three hours a day. What have impressed Villani the most have been Likely’s work ethic and mental approach.
“Amazing,” Villani said. “Eighty-five percent of NFL players are better physically than mentally. They’re so physically gifted that mentally they’re not as sharp as they are physically. He’s one of the guys that’s mentally as sharp as he is physically."
While others wonder what would have happened had Likely left Maryland after his junior year, Likely doesn’t second-guess his decision to return for his senior season, which ended, along with his college career, when he was injured after muffing a punt in a homecoming loss to Minnesota in mid-October.
“You’ve got to move on from that, because life doesn’t go backwards, you go forwards," Likely said. “Regardless of your decision, people are still going about their business. The world’s still moving. If you don’t, you’re going to get left behind.”
Likely said he believes he helped himself with what he showed Wednesday.
“Most teams, really all the teams, didn’t really see me except New England,” he said. “It was a good time to showcase that I’m back healthy and better than I was before. … The pro day kind of helped me because they [NFL teams] want to see where I’m at.”
Asked what the past year has been like, Likely said: “It's been difficult. If you want it bad, you got to go out and get it. It’s been grind mode for me. I just kept my head down and just kept pushing. Just keep pushing, until I get another shot.”
Likely spent much of the past year back home working out. Having already earned his degree from Maryland, Likely concentrated on getting back the explosiveness that made him one of the most dynamic players in the country his first three years.
“That’s all I did, day in and day out, training,” he said. “Like I said, I want to get back, so I’m hungry for it. That’s the only thing my focus was at, and still [is] on, that's the only thing I know right now.”
As much as he enjoys the grind of training, he misses playing football. Likely said he has not watched a single game — high school, college or NFL — since leaving Maryland.
“Just not playing football, that’s all I know, that’s all I’ve been doing, that’s how I got here [to Maryland],” he said. “Not playing football, that’s been the toughest thing.”
NOTES: Wide receiver DJ Moore, who is widely considered a potential first-round draft choice after an impressive performance at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, took part only in pass-catching drills Wednesday. … Safety Josh Woods (McDonogh) might have helped his cause by running a reported 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash.