COLLEGE PARK — In the moment, Will Likely wasn’t aware exactly how many yards he had racked up on special teams in Saturday's 50-21 win over Richmond.
It turns out, his 233 punt return yards set a new Big Ten record, eclipsing the mark set by Iowa’s Nile Kinnick in 1939.
“1930?” Likely asked, in disbelief that he could be hearing that correctly when told of the record by a reporter postgame. He was given the more precise date — 1939.
“That’s a long time. It’s a blessing, man, just be able to do that, to be able to break somebody’s record who did it that long (ago) and it hasn’t been broken? That’s a blessing.”
Richmond kept punting it to him, and he kept returning it. And when Richmond tried to punt it away from him, he kept going and getting it and returning it again.
On his last return of the day, he dipped and dodged 67 yards with very little gas left in the tank, diving from just outside the goal line to reach across and score a touchdown.
“Give Will credit. He was going to track them down,” head coach Randy Edsall said. “He’s a ball hawk, and he loves getting that ball in his hands.”
It’s rare that a program is able to send a starting-caliber returner to the NFL and have one come in the next season and be as good or better than the one who has left.
Stefon Diggs, who shared duties with Likely last season, has been tremendous for the Minnesota Vikings as a punt returner in the preseason.
Likely steps in full-time and in one game tallied more punt return yards (233) than he did all of last season (225). The single-game total of 233 places him 12th on Maryland's single-season list.
“I don’t know if there’s enough superlatives to use in regards to Will Likely,” Edsall said. “He’s a joy to be around. He’s a joy to coach.”
As electric as Likely’s punt returns are to watch for entertainment value alone, they’re also crucially important to what Maryland wants to do offensively this season.
Quarterback Perry Hills will continue to settle into the starting role, and if he can set up in an opponent’s territory on a regular basis thanks to Likely, that makes his job much easier.
One more note on the player whose record Likely broke on Saturday? Kinnick went on to win the Heisman Trophy during that 1939 season.