Tarboro's running shell game

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Tarboro's Tae Randolph, left, and Clifton Joyner Jr. run through a play during practice Monday at Tarboro High School in Tarboro.


Sports Writer

Friday, December 1, 2017

TARBORO —- Jaquez Edge wasn’t sure what to expect when he transferred from Northern Nash to Tarboro High before the 2016 football season.

He sure wasn’t expecting to have to re-learn everything he knew about taking handoffs. After a promising freshman season where he played running back for the Knights, Edge figured he’d be looking at a similar situation with Tarboro. Everything changed when showed up at his first practice and was placed in the backfield.

There was so much going on, Edge felt a little overwhelmed.

“It was my first time ever running with these guys and learning what they do,” Edge said. “They hold their arms a different way, it’s really fast, and everything has a larger point about stealth. It took a couple weeks to get it down pat. I remembered the plays, how they hand the ball off, but I kept messing up. It was hard.”

Vikings fans may share some of Edge’s frustrations. Don’t feel alone if it’s hard to find the ball when Tarboro is on offense from a seat all the way up in the bleachers. Opposing defenses have trouble as well, and they’re on the same field. Teams spend entire games trying to solve the puzzle. Even members of the Vikings aren’t always sure of where the ball is, including those running the offense.

“Sometimes I still forget who has it,” Edge said. “If it’s not me, of course.”

The Vikings running game can be best described as a shell game. The goal is to create confusion, and it mimics the game where a small object is hidden under one of three cups before they are moved around quickly in an attempt to cause the player to lose track of the ball. The Vikings do this, only with a football. 

The next team to play Tarboro’s mind game will be No. 2 Edenton Holmes on Friday in the 1-AAA East Regional final.

Quarterback Tae Randolph is the conductor of the area’s most successful rushing attack. Randolph is the one who puts the ball into the runner’s arms, while faking a handoff to two others all at once. He has to know everyone’s role, where they will be and when they will be there.

The Vikings teach this running system at the lower levels as well, including middle school football. That’s where Randolph got his first taste of an offense he would one day be directing. He started as a running back in seventh grade, then made the move to quarterback the following year.

“It took me two or three weeks to know was supposed to get the ball,” Randolph said. “I played running back so I knew what the backs were doing, but at QB they’re all coming from different directions, so it took a while to get that muscle memory down. A lot of it now is muscle memory.”

Edge always lines up behind Randolph, while Clifton Joyner Jr. and Deontae Williams set up on either side of Edge. This is the calm before a flurry of crossing and deception. Criss-cross is the play call, and Williams and Joyner cross path, while Edge splits them. Any one of the three can get the ball, and a fourth option of Randolph keeping it is also in play.

“Everything has to be perfect,” Joyner said. “We have to be four yards off the ball to keep everything working.”

Added Edge: “If I’m even five yards off, it’ll mess the whole play up.”

Defenses can choose who to key on, even choose what side to contain, but once the ball is snapped all planning goes haywire. And that’s the point.

On multiple occasions during last week’s third-round win over West Montgomery the Warriors defense looked to have bottled up a run, only to watch as the play went the other way for a big gain. Of the Vikings’ 46 rushing attempts last week, 44 went for positive yards. Of the remaining two plays, one was a two-yard loss, while the other went for no gain.

“The line makes it perfect,” Randolph said. “Once they wall everything down, that’s when all the faking we do in the backfield takes over. The defense is looking around for the ball and our backs are way up the sideline.”

The group has fun with it. Joyner said he has been tackled countless times despite not having the ball. That lets him know everything worked out.

“They will try to hit me and I’ll smile knowing that I don’t have the ball,” Joyner said. “You know if you get hit and don’t have the ball then we got the job done.”