The Tarboro T-ree: For powerhouse Vikings, success starts from the bottom up

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Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock, center, celebrates with Matthew Medford, left, and Jaquez Edge on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 following the Vikings' 32-7 win over Mount Airy in the NCHSAA 1-AA state championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.


Sports Writer

Friday, December 14, 2018

TARBORO — Before Wayne Bryant set in motion the final piece of the Tarboro football landscape, he was coaching middle school football in the Southern Nash feeder school system.

There, while coaching Southern Nash Middle School (his final year was in 2017) Bryant saw firsthand the benefits of having a streamlined program where each level — from middle school, to high school junior varsity, to varsity — operated under the same offensive and defensive philosophies.

And while it hasn’t won a state title, Southern Nash has made itself into a household name among 3-A teams statewide, and the route to a state championship often runs through the Firebirds.

Tarboro, too, has operated like this for years with its middle school team running the trademark Tarboro T. But for years, at its youngest levels of the program, philosophies on how to play varied. Most of this stemmed from volunteer coaches who would teach the game by leaning on what they learned about the game from their own playing days.

So this past year, when Bryant accepted and began his current position as the athletic coordinator in the Tarboro parks and recreation department, his first task was to make the recreation league teams across all age levels a carbon copy of its big brother — 1-A powerhouse Tarboro, playing for its sixth state title on Saturday against East Surry at Carter-Finley Stadium.

“When I first got to Southern Nash Middle the kids I got hadn’t played what we were teaching them yet,” Bryant said. “But soon the rec leagues ran what the high school did, so I started to get players to come over who were already running what Coach (Brian) Foster was running at the high school and I got an idea.”

Bryant, whose brother Kelvin Bryant starred at Tarboro in the late 1970s before moving on to play football at North Carolina and in the NFL, made it a requirement this past year that each rec league coach must use the high school Vikings’ base offense and defense.

That means that rookies (ages 7-8), JV (ages 9-10) and the varsity (ages 11-12) will all learn and use the Tarboro T and the base defense of 4-4 Cover 3.

“At first there were a couple coaches that didn’t know the T and were skeptical,” Bryant said. “So here you got a 7-year-old and a guy that’s 45 years old both trying to learn the offense and it’s the coach that’s quick to bail out.

“We had a couple struggles in the beginning and parted ways with some. But let me tell you, it breeds success by having the midget teams do those things at a young age.”

Think of the Tarboro football program, the one seen on Friday nights, as a Major League Baseball franchise with a fully-fledged farm system complete with minor league teams that are all working toward the same goal.

For Jeff Craddock, Tarboro’s head coach since 2004, creating this trickle-down system was atop his wish list upon taking over the program. Craddock has seen teams whose JV squads differ from the varsity’s, and watched those programs struggle with consistency from year to year.

In order to instill a unified voice and goal with each new team he inherited, Craddock knew that he would have to build a relationship with the middle school and rec coaches if he wanted to be successful.

“When I started I knew the middle school, JV and varsity were going to be copies of each other,” Craddock said. “And at the beginning stages I wasn’t concerned about (rec leagues) because I couldn’t change everything at once. But immediate changes were happening at the levels I thought I could control.”

Fast forward to 2018 and the Vikings on Saturday will compete for their sixth state championship, and their second in as many seasons. They are also playing for back-to-back undefeated seasons for the first time in program history.

Most players on the field taking on East Surry in the 1-AA title game are products of those early ideas and changes to the lower levels.

“Over time I was able to reach out to the younger programs and have some meetings with coaches and explain some things that we want (them) to teach,” Craddock explained. “And they were close. They ran the Wing T, which was similar but not quite the T. Then Wayne Bryant took over this year and now every single team runs double tight.

“They’ve become mini-Tarboro, where our philosophies on reads, formations, plays, adjustments, it’s all the same. From age 9, they’re doing roll trap, criss-cross, b-gap dive. The terminology is the same, the programs are carbon copies of what we are.”

Part of the reason why it was so important to have a unified front when trying to build a football powerhouse is because what the Vikings do requires perfection in both timing and knowledge of what each play is trying to accomplish.

Fullback Jaquez Edge remembered how difficult his first season went after being dropped in the Vikings backfield for the first time as a sophomore. Edge transferred from Northern Nash where he was a running back and figured he wouldn’t have any issues toting the ball for Tarboro.

Then he started running into his teammates. He even muffed a few handoffs.

“It was my first time ever running with these guys and learning what they do,” Edge told the Telegram last year. “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.”

Current JV coach Riley Hurdle can attest to Edge’s early struggles. Hurdle spent years coaching at Pattillo Middle School in Tarboro, and found himself spending chunks of practice time teaching players who weren’t familiar with the system the basics, especially timing.

“It’s all about the timing, everything is timing and the mesh is so important with our offense,” Hurdle said. “So if you’ve been doing it since 8 years old, it’s second nature.

“In this system, say you have somebody go down and you have to change your backs around a little bit, you’ll go through growing pains for about 14 days. Even if you move the left halfback to the right and run a crossing play, ‘BAM,’ they’ll run into each other.”

Fans who have watched Tarboro know this well. When the Vikings have the ball, the quarterback lines up under center with a trio of runners in a line behind him. After the snap the ball can go to any of the three with a heavy dose of deception.

Craddock has found that while he reaps the benefits of having knowledgeable players coming to varsity each year, he knows that connecting young players with the successful, winning program is where it has to start.

A sign that sits atop an advertising board near one of the end zones shows a “Lil’ Vikings” logo with an arrow pointing to the high school’s mascot — a grown Viking, complete with horns, a mustache and flowing hair.

“I have them playing on this field,” Craddock said of the young players while looking across the browned grass his teams have grown accustomed to while playing deep into December. “I want them used to playing on Viking field from the time they’re 7 until their 18. I try to come down and watch them play, I try to say hi to the kids and when they come by I fist bump them and say ‘never lose at home.’ We want to make them feel like what they’re doing is important and that people are watching them.”

Bryant, who at one point was one of those young players who looked up to the high school program, agrees.

“It’s something everyone can relate to. Mom, dad and grandma, everyone,” Bryant said. “The kids love it, and when they sit down on Friday night and watch a Tarboro High game they can relate because that 7-year-old just ran that same play the high schoolers ran in for a touchdown.”