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Offensive line pushing Tarboro forward

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Tarboro's Q'davion Barnes runs through a play at practice Monday at Tarboro High School in Tarboro.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Thursday, November 30, 2017

TARBORO —- Steve Burnette was out walking one day in 2010 when a couple friends suggested he run for a position on Tarboro’s town council. It didn’t take too much convincing, and he has since won re-election.

Tarboro High football coach Jeff Craddock didn’t have to pry too hard, either, when he asked Burnette to come coach his offensive line six years ago.

“I live down the street from coach Craddock,” Burnette said. “He asked, and I said, Sure, why not?’”

Some recognize the 60-year-old with the sculpted white mustache that trails past his jawline as a friendly councilman who listens to Motown and beach music. Others, like those associated with the Tarboro football program, know Burnette as the fiery offensive line coach who is learning the names of popular rappers, and the man who talks a big game and carries a big stick to back it up.

Let’s start with the stick.

It started out as a football connected to a pole, a contraption that helps coaches simulate the action of snapping a football from a safe distance away from large linemen. Now, the football is almost unrecognizable after years of being wrapped in tape 10 times over. The pole looks as if it will snap apart at any moment, especially with the way Burnette uses it as a prop.

“It’s supposed to be a ball,” Burnette said. “Now it’s my cane to walk around with. This was here when I got here, but it was in much better shape. I got mad something like three years ago and slammed it down.”

Through several whacks against the ground and equipment, the stick remains and rarely leaves Burnette’s side at practice.

“He’s had that thing forever, at least since I got here,” Vikings left guard Taquan Hutcherson said. “One time he smashed it, next thing you know he comes back with it taped up ready to go.”

Burnette mixes a self-described old-school style with a bit of sugar. Sometimes he will get loud and call out a player. He’s been in several arguments over his two-plus decades and abides by a 24-hour rule which means that whatever scraps he or his players might get into, is left in the past after 24 hours.

Other times he’s in on jokes and acting like one of the guys. Burnette has a 22-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter, and he makes sure to keep tabs on what they’re interested in. He brings a lot of what he sees to practice with him.

“It’s my style,” Burnette said. “I get on them hard some days, and some days I make a smart remark. I never try to demean them, but I let them know that’s not how we need to do it. I try to learn names of the songs they listen to, I’ll volunteer to help tape ankles before games, really anything to help be more relatable.”

He discovered a balance over his 25 years of coaching linemen at stops like North Edgecombe and SouthWest Edgecombe. He’s helped win a couple state titles with the Warriors and waded through various techniques that both worked and didn’t.

What remains is a style that even Craddock and defensive assistant Andrew Harding have a tough time understanding. Mostly, the rest of the coaching staff allows Burnette the freedom to do his thing, even if what’s coming from his mouth doesn’t make any sense to anyone but the players on the line.

“We’ll come up with a call for our snap count or something,” Hutcherson said. “It could be anything. Some have come from when we’re joking around with something funny, or even just a random word. It makes sense to us and he goes with it. It’s cool.”

And while the relationship from coach to player is strong, the on-field product might be even stronger. This year’s collection of offensive lineman has been the hidden engine powering the Vikings into the regional final this Friday against visiting Edenton Holmes. After games this season, several running backs have praised the line for making things easy.

Right tackle Ken Belcher, right guard Melik Ward, center Nijee Chandler, left guard Hutcherson and left tackle Hunter Medford have paved the way to the most successful offense since Burnette joined the staff. The 13-0 Vikings have scored 683 points, the most since scoring 611 in 2012.

Ward is a standout two-way player who often draws double-team attention from opposing teams. Belcher has been a starter for three seasons and, along with Medford, keep edge rushers at bay. Chandler plugs the middle and has a good relationship with quarterback Tae Randolph, while Hutcherson is much improved after suffering a rash of injuries last season.

All five combine to form a formidable front that dictates games. The run game has benefitted the most and hasn’t been slowed all season. Just about anyone who has received carries has found success.

Burnette said this is the best line he’s coached. The numbers agree. Tarboro has 10 players with at least 100 rushing yards, led by Jaquan Edge’s 805. The backs scoring touchdowns and breaking off large runs command the most attention.

“We have a lot of unsung heroes,” Burnette said. “We have really good players who are doing some really good things. They get a little jealous every once in a while, and I get a little jealous too, but that’s the life of a lineman.”

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