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Tarboro's Willoughby more than a tackling machine

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Tarboro linebacker Phillip Willoughby makes a tackle against Northern Nash this season. Willoughby is the signal caller for the Vikings defense.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

TARBORO —- Phillip Willoughby can’t keep his eyes off the West Montgomery running back wearing No. 25.

The Tarboro High linebacker has spent hours over the previous week watching film, studying pre-snap looks and looking for anything that can give the Vikings an advantage. Now, it’s the first quarter and Willoughby barks instructions to his teammates, making sure they’re prepared for a run to the left.

During the week’s film sessions ahead of last week’s third-round win over the Warriors, the coaches determined they could figure out which side of the field the Warriors were headed based on how the running back lines up in certain formations. Vikings coach Jeff Craddock goes over information like this with Willoughby and the rest of the defense throughout the week, as well as spending the week of practices recreating those situations.

“They had one formation where they would cheat one of the backs up and we knew which way the option was going,” Willoughby said. “Another, we noticed if No. 25 wasn’t in a stance then the play wasn’t going his way.”

The Vikings used some of that information in the 48-3 win backed by another strong defensive performance in a season full of them. The win sent Tarboro to a regional final appearance Friday against visiting Edenton Holmes. This week’s opponent runs the triple option, a deceptive and big-play potential rushing attack that will take a smart defensive effort to shut down.

Tarboro has allowed just 52 points (including 6 shutouts) over 13 games this season. Never have the Vikings allowed more than 14 points in a game. The talent on the defensive side of the ball is plentiful, though the knowledge and understanding of how to defend various offensive styles is what makes this defense elite.  

And Willoughby, who thinks this is the top unit he’s played on, makes it all go.

The senior linebacker has the physical traits to dominate in the middle of Tarboro’s defense. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder leads the Vikings in tackles with 119. Joseph Lyons is next with 75. But collecting tackles isn’t the only thing that makes Willoughby indispensable to the defense.

Willoughby is the play-caller. He is the one to receive the play call from a coach on the sideline, and it’s his job to relay that call to his teammates. He also has the responsibility to tell his teammates what gaps to fill, what side the opposing team is running toward, and even occasionally checking into a pass defense.

“He’s a smart kid,” said Craddock, before going in depth on the different types of audibles the team uses. “He’s reading the offensive linemen, reading the 1 technique and the 3 technique, and decides which way to send our defense, either to the right or to the left.”

Willoughby has played at the varsity level since his sophomore season. It was that 10th-grade year where he was first entrusted with his duties of making sure the defense is ready to roll. Several steps take place before the snap. First, Willoughby looks over to the sideline where a coach signals the play. It could be a blitz,  or maybe a formation change from the Vikings’ base 4-4 defense to a cover 2.

Then Willoughby determines the stunts, or direction the lineman will take, and the gaps to fill. He also had to rely of his prep work to have an idea of which side the play will be going, either to the wide side of the field or the short. 

He does this with both great confidence and accuracy, relying on a foundation built from spending around three hours each week watching film. Some is done after school at practice with a coaching staff that has used the weekend to dissect the tape. Other, more personal sessions happen at home.

He estimates it takes him about 45 minutes to get through a typical game, and he watches each about three times.

“If I know it’s an advanced scheme it makes me want to watch even more,” Willoughby said. “The more moving parts the opponent has the more my brain wants to learn as much as I can.”

Willoughby is a self-proclaimed film-session addict. He watches for tendencies, common plays, and misdirection. Oftentimes he will have his eyes transfixed to a screen at home, only to have his mother interrupt with a check-in.

“My mom gets on me,” Willoughby said. “Sometimes like ‘Boy, you must have to have something else to do beside just watch film right?’”

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