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Despite small stature, CB Will Likely making big impact at Maryland

Will Likely has heard plenty about his size over the years. How he's too short at 5-foot-7 to make an impact. How he's too small to be elite.

But there's one criticism that's never left the Maryland cornerback, one that he still uses for motivation even today. During the summer before his senior year of high school -- down near the everglades of Florida -- one scouting service dropped him more than 100 spots nationally in just one day. The reasoning?

"With Likely, as a group, we just had too many concerns about his size, specifically him being 5-foot-7," one scout wrote.

Added another: "Sometimes you can be a very good prospect and be very athletic, but size can hold you back from a lofty ranking."

Likely insists all that chatter never bothered him -- "They got to get used to it; I'm used to it already" -- but he's taken a lot of pride in proving the doubters wrong. That's why, when he thinks back to those May 2012 articles, he just smiles.

"I came back and won Florida Gatorade Player of the Year," Likely said. "So people are going to always talk about it but, at the end of the day, I can't do anything about it because this is what God gave me."

Of the 132 other defensive backs in the Big Ten East, none are as short as Likely. He's 4.5 inches smaller than the East's average starting cornerback, and only five East cornerbacks weigh less than Likely's 175 pounds. (Three are freshman cornerbacks on Michigan State.)

But whatever Likely lacks in size, he makes up for with instincts, athleticism and heart. That's even become evident to outsiders. Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld brought up Likely, unprompted, during Big Ten media days.

"He's as good as they come in college football," Sudfeld said. "He plays big. If I throw it high, he jumps high. So he'll get there. I don't think the height's a big issue for him. He's fast, powerful, explosive -- he's a big-time player."

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Reidel Anthony, an assistant coach on Likely's high school team in 2011-2012, saw something special in Likely before he even took the offensive coordinator job at Glades Central. He watched the tiny teenager play as a sophomore with a certain confidence, a kind of swagger, that just can't be taught.

All that was reinforced when -- despite constant talk in the community about Likely being too small -- he never let up. Likely would call up Anthony, head over to his home, watch film and ask questions about everything. He wanted to understand all facets of the game. He'd spend extra time on the practice field, whether a 2-7 team was on the schedule or a 9-0 powerhouse was coming to town.

"He'll work until he just passes out," Anthony said. "That's the way he'll probably die -- on the field somewhere. He's always going to work, and he's never going to get complacent."

That mentality is what turned Likely from a recruit with a big warning sign plastered over his head into one of the nation's top-playmakers. Likely hasn't grown in size much from high school -- but his confident mind-set hasn't changed either.

Ask him who the best corner in the conference is. "I think I'm the best cornerback and returner." Ask him where the Maryland secondary ranks. "The top, the best in the conference, arguably. Working on being the best in college football." Ask him about his playing style. "I tend to make a lot of plays. If you check the numbers -- I'm not really a numbers guy -- but that speaks a lot. Right?"

Six interceptions last season, two of which were returned for touchdowns -- yeah, Likely's numbers say a lot all right. They say he's quick and, obviously, confident. They say he's one of the Big Ten's best. And that he's still in the film room nearly every day, making sure that knowledge matches his instincts.

When a reporter asked Likely during media days about his interception at Iowa, the junior cornerback didn't have to pause or stare at the ceiling for help. He recalled that play instantly, quicker than someone could've searched for it online.

"Once they got in that formation," he said, remembering it was a five-wide, "I knew what it was -- especially with the down and distance. There's only like two plays they run out of that, so I took my chance and made a play."

It's strange, remarked the reporter, that the quarterback -- Jake Rudock -- will now play him at Michigan. And Likely, of course, replied in Likely fashion.

"Oh, he's at Michigan now?" Likely said. "Hopefully, he can throw my way again."

That's just Likely. He speaks in short sentences. His stature is small. But, thanks to that swagger, he plays big.