Telegram's DPOY Willoughby guides Tarboro to best defensive season

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Tarboro's Phillip Willoughby is the 2017 Telegram All-Area Defensive Football Player of the Year.


Sports Writer

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Phillip Willoughby and Tarboro High football coach Jeff Craddock are watching film together on an opponent. Film sessions are a large part of the Vikings’ game preparation.

Early Saturday mornings are dedicated to breaking down game tape. It’s never too early to begin work on the next game. By now, the senior linebacker has trained his eye to watch for small details. He’s not just watching the standout running back, but how he lines up before a snap.

Watch how that beefy guard comes set for a run play, then watch how he puts his hand in the ground for a pass play. Willoughby looks for all of this. He’s gotten quite good at it.

“Any little thing we can find on any team we try to use to our advantage,” Craddock said. “Phillip finds something all the time. He’ll say, ‘Hey coach, I noticed on this right guard that his butt is down in the stance when they run this, and he’s light handed when they run this.’

“You have to spend hours of film study to see that to get any type of clue. He’s so unique that during games he relays that info so accurately, ‘Triple option coming to our left boys.’ He can do that because he saw that on film.”

Willoughby combined a rare blend of knowledge about the game and a physical skill set to guide the Vikings to their fifth state championship in program history, and the first since 2011. Willoughby was the team’s tackle leader with 140, including 25.5 for a loss.

The senior earned all-state honors, and is the Telegram’s 2017 Football Defensive Player of the Year.

Willoughby has come a long way from not understanding why he was chosen to have more responsibility than he thought he could handle as a sophomore, to a leader of the program’s top defensive season.

He remembers questioning what he was doing in the middle of the Tarboro defense two years ago. But it was all part of Craddock’s master plan.

Willoughby was a sophomore who was recently called up to the varsity squad, and Craddock wasted no time in turning over the defense to the new addition. In his first game, Willoughby was responsible for making all the checks for the defense.

“At first it was overwhelming that sophomore year because they were throwing a bunch at me,” Willoughby said. “I kept thinking, ‘Why did they pick me for the job?’ The first two years I had senior linebackers right beside me, and I wondered why I was the one telling everyone what to do.

“Being a sophomore, giving words to juniors and seniors was weird at first. I was so afraid to mess up that I started to watch film a lot. Then, it evolved into to me watching film because I wanted to be good at it, not because I was afraid to mess up.”

Craddock saw Willoughby’s potential early. The longtime coach raved about Willoughby’s intangibles, mostly his ability to process information quickly, as well as a drive to never be out-worked. So Craddock pushed the young linebacker, sometimes quite hard, and filled his head with as much information as possible.

But there was no way to overload this football mind, and Craddock knew it.

“It’s my job as a coach to give him as much as info as I had,” Craddock said. “We as coaches tried to give our kids every advantage on an opponent to make plays. I could be as technical or as detailed as I wanted, and I knew he could handle it. The more I can give this kid and the more he loves it.”

Willoughby was right in the middle of the best defense in program history, a defense that allowed just 66 points over 15 games in a season in which no opponent managed to put a scare into the Vikings.

Tarboro marched to a perfect 15-0 on the foundation of that terrific defense. Mount Airy, previously unbeaten, couldn’t get its high-scoring offense going throughout the game. Where its run-pass option offense shined in other games, Tarboro shut it down.

Craddock spoke about studying the Mount Airy offense during that title game, looking for one small piece of detail to relay to Willoughby. Together, they discovered a tell. So in the biggest game of his career, and on the state’ biggest stage, Willoughby went to work again.

The coaching staff watches film with an unrivaled attention to detail, and does so with the luxury of a pause button or rewind function in the film room. Craddock raves about Willoughby’s ability to makes these reads on Friday nights at game speed. It is that ability that made him the team’s top asset on defense, and allowed the coaching staff to install a complex defense.

On any given play, Willoughby has at least three different checks he can switch to, sometimes four.

“He was an extension of me out on the field,” Craddock said. “With the checks we put in, he has to know and see everything we do as coaches. If we had, say, a younger player or a different player instead of Phillip, we might have had to scale down our game plan.

“There was no slowing down with Phillip. I can watch the film 10 or 20 times, and I can rewind and look at things. We show him this, and now he’s on the field making these reads at game speed. He’s the one looking around and seeing these things in the maybe 5 or 10 seconds you have before the snap. Believe me, it’s not easy, and that’s what makes him so great.”

Willoughby has a 3.4 GPA to back his play on the field. He has a couple offers to play football at the college level, though he admits that the recruiting process has been a little slow, and he hopes to receive more interest soon. Playing in college is a dream of his, and a goal he was worked toward ever since he came to high school. He no longer plays another sport at Tarboro, but instead focuses on ways to improve on the field by way of the weight room or conditioning.

He plans to major in sports medicine or sports management. 

“I can’t stress enough about what a great young man he is,” Craddock said. “Him and my son, (sophomore Clay Craddock) are good friends and my son looks up to Phillip. That’s the type of role model I want my children to have. His character, his work ethic, and just being a good human being, he is all of that together and I’m blessed to have coached him.”


Phillip Willoughby, Sr. LB, Tarboro -- An all-state selection and the Telegram’s defensive player of the year, Willoughby led the Vikings in tackles with 144 tackles and 25.5 for a loss.

Ja’viyes Massenburg, So. DL, Tarboro -- Collected 58 tackles and five sacks. The sophomore defensive end also recovered four fimbles and scored a pair of touchdowns.

Melik Ward, Jr. DL, Tarboro -- The most disruptive defensive lineman, Ward often commanded double teams. Ward forced four fumbles and finished with six sacks. He had 67 tackles and nine for a loss.

De’Trell Revis, Sr. S, Rocky Mount High -- The Gryphons’ ball-hawking safety made plays all over the field again this season. Revis had three interceptions and a pair of pass breakups, along with 67 tackles.

Shyheim Battle, Jr. DB, Rocky Mount High -- The top cornerback in the area often drew the opponent’s top pass catcher as his defensive assignments. Battle had three pass breakups and 31 tackles, as teams avoided his side of the field.

Brandyn Petteway, So. LB, Nash Central -- Petteway recorded a team-high 134 tackles and a pair of sacks. The sophomore also recovered three fumbles and recorded an interception.

Jahkele Goins, Sr. DB, SouthWest Edgecombe -- The definition of a game changer, Goins made it tough for opponents to move the ball through the air. The senior made 84 tackles, but collected an area-high eight interceptions to go with three pass breakups.

Hunter Perry, Sr. DL/LB, Southern Nash -- The linebacker led the Firebirds with 83 tackles, including 23 for a loss. Perry also had 12.5 sacks and five fumble recoveries.

Dae’one Wilkins, Sr. LB, Southern Nash -- The senior was a force at middle linebacker for the Firebirds, collecting 76 tackles and a sack. Wilkins also picked off a team-high five passes and accounted for four pass breakups.

Nick Clark, Sr. DL, Faith Christian -- Clark was a handful coming off the edge for the Patriots. The senior had 68 tackles, 20 for a loss, and added 11.5 sacks over 10 games.

Isaiah Thomas, Jr. DB, Rocky Mount Academy -- Thomas was the best defensive player on a state championship team. He often lurked in the secondary and collected a number of interceptions and scored defensive touchdowns in key moments.


Alandis Trevathan, Jr. DL, Rocky Mount High; Rodell Bridges, Jr. LB, Rocky Mount High; Kevon Daniels, Sr. LB, Rocky Mount High; Jonathan Frye, Jr. LB, Northern Nash; Jaylin Wilkins, Jr. DB, Northern Nash; Kedric Anderson, Jr. DE, Southern Nash; Na’Sheen Cooley, Sr. DE, Southern Nash; Kevin Terrell, Sr. S, Southern Nash; Joseph Lyons, Sr. LB, Tarboro; Jacoby Ward, Sr. DB, Tarboro; Devonta Davis, Sr. DB, Tarboro; Alex Nobles, Sr. LB, Nash Central; Shyheim Pittman, So. LB, Nash Central; Kendall Winston, Jr. DB, Nash Central; Malachi Ruffin, Sr. DL, Nash Central; Jelan Smith, Jr. DB, SouthWest Edgecombe; Jordan Claytan, Jr. DT, SouthWest Edgecombe; Garrett Pannell, Jr. DB, Faith Christian