COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) - Maryland’s Will Likely appears to have mastered the variety of skills a successful kick returner must possess.
Likely ran all over the field last Saturday in a 50-21 win over Richmond, returning 10 kicks for 296 yards and a touchdown. By the time he was done, the 5-foot-7 junior broke a Big Ten record that had been in place since 1939.
He amassed 233 yards in punt returns, eclipsing the single-game conference mark of 201 held by former Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick of Iowa.
It was more yardage than Likely totaled all last season while running back 20 punts.
“First and foremost, the blockers did a good job not letting guys get downfield quickly, giving me a shot,” Likely said. “Once I saw grass, I just went.”
Maryland coach Randy Edsall has worked at the pro and college level since 1980. During that time, he’s never seen a player return kicks better than Likely.
“He’s the best I’ve ever been around in terms of tracking the ball, having a feel for everything and then being able to produce,” Edsall said Tuesday.
Taking back a punt requires seeing the ball off the kicker’s foot, judging the spin, getting into position to make the catch, watching the ball into your hands, utilizing blocks, breaking tackles and running toward open spaces.
“Some guys have some of the qualities you need to have back there,” Edslall said, “but I of all the guys I’ve been around, he probably possesses all the qualities of an outstanding return man.”
Some of those skills can be taught. Others cannot.
“We coach up” a lot of things, Edsall said. “After that, instincts take over for him. He just has a good feel.”
Likely’s instincts often tell him to take back a kick instead of calling a fair catch. Sometimes, it’s a risky proposition.
“My biggest thing with Will is that he always wants to make a big play,” Edsall said. “When you’ve got to run 20 or 30 yards to the ball, then you should probably fair catch it.”
After Saturday’s performance - which earned him Big Ten special teams player of the week honors - Likely may find increasingly fewer chances to run back punts. Richmond’s punter was instructed to kick the ball out of bounds but couldn’t do it, leaving Likely free to return a kick 67 yards in the fourth quarter.
Bowling Green (0-1) will probably play keep-away this Saturday, so it’s up to Likely to assess each kick on the fly.
“The most important thing that’s been drilled in my head is to be focused and take no play for granted,” he said. “When you take a play for granted, bad things happen.”
If Likely can’t make a big play as a kick returner, he has the opportunity to do as Maryland’s starting cornerback. He had six interceptions last year, and against Richmond he had four tackles and broke up two passes.
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