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Prep football: Tarboro readies for three-peat quest, opens Week 1 hosting Rocky Mount

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Tarboro quarterback Kimani McDaniels, right, breaks away from East Surry's Mitchell Edwards during a 65-yard touchdown run Saturday in the NCHSAA 1-AA state championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

With a little more than a week from the start of the prep football season, the victory machine that is Tarboro High School readies for another season with a state title in the crosshairs.

Not many teams can set a goal of going undefeated and playing for a championship each season without coming off as cliche. The Tarboro Vikings are one of those teams.

And for good reason.

Tarboro is coming off back-to-back Class 1-AA state championships, and it has won 30 consecutive games dating back to 2016. But this season presents several unique challenges. The Vikings are returning just three starters on each side of the ball.

One of those returning starters is quarterback Kimani McDaniels. Tarboro teams under coach Jeff Craddockhave never attempted more than nine passes in a game, yet McDaniels might be the most important factor for the offense this season.

McDaniels, who was named the 2019 1-A state track meet’s MVP this spring after winning the 100- and 200-meter dashes, is one of those three returners on offense. He has spent the summer working with a new cast of runners in the backfield.

Everyone who caught a pass not named McDaniels will have to be replaced, and five of the top runners from last season left to graduation. Khalil Staton is the lone returner to have rushed for at least 100 yards.

“I still have to get used to them,” McDaniels said of his new backfield. “Last year we had a lot of seniors who ran this for a long time. The new guys, they’re good, but I have to get used to some differences like how they set up their stomach where I put the ball.

“And they’re a bit quicker than some of the guys last year so I have to be a little faster turning and getting them the ball.”

McDaniels, whose knowledge of the offense added in the deception of his handoffs, will also be a threat to run as the Vikings coaching staff aims to take advantage of his game-breaking speed. As a junior, he used that speed to record a game-high 112 rushing yards with two touchdowns during last season’s state championship win.

The Vikings defense loses its wrecking ball of a tackle in Melik Ward, but key returners up front lessen the blow. The unit brings back second-leading tackler Clay Craddock and sack-leader Ja’viyes Massenburg.

Both seniors are crucial to the success of the Vikings defense, which last season allowed 62 points over 15 games (4.12 points allowed per game).

“Everybody is learning quick and we have some seniors that are stepping in,” Craddock, a linebacker, said. “But the learning curve comes in more with the juniors, but everyone has filled in the positions really well.

“For me, I’m taking on more of a leadership role. I have a bit more responsibility now. This year, being the only returning linebacker, film study will be important. I need to make sure I can hold my own, while also helping to bring along some new guys.”

Craddock said that during a recent scrimmage he found himself picking up on things the opposing offense was doing more quickly than he would have a year ago.

“There were things that I picked up on, such as during some plays they hurt us on,” Craddock said. “I picked up on some different things that could help us defend what they were doing. I started in Week 4 last year and started ever since then, and now I’m more comfortable reading defenses on the field.”

As for Massenburg, the 6-foot-3, 227-pound defensive end will be a focal point of opposing offenses. He said that his goal this season is to find ways to be impactful on the field when teams run plays away from him.

“I’ve been working on when the ball goes across the field, away from me, of going and chasing it,” he said. “Sometimes I’m swapping sides, too, because teams will run the other way from me. Other times I get double-teamed, but most of the time they won’t run my way. So when they do, I have to make a play and shut it down.”

Massenburg, who has been a regular starter since his sophomore season, is one of the team captains this year. The added responsibility opened his eyes to what goes into setting an example for his teammates.

It didn’t come easy at first.

“As a senior I feel more motivated, more self-motivated, and more important,” Massenburg said. “I took the role of a captain this year and when I was younger, even just last year, I looked at the captains and remember trying to clown them for being strict about things like being on time and stuff. Now it's me being that guy. You learn a lot.”

The Vikings have won Week 1 games by at least 42 points in each of the previous three seasons. In fact, Tarboro has won every Week 1 game since 2011, a 38-28 loss to then-Class 3-A Nash Central.

This opening week figures to be more difficult as the Vikings host Rocky Mount High, which has won a state championship and advanced to another over the past four years.

“We have got to be Week 4 or Week 5 ready for our first game,” Massenburg said. “From a coach’s point of view they know we have to be ready to play well, and from a player’s point of view you want to play well and beat them, too, because that’s a game we’ve been wanting since middle school.”

Vikings file

Coach: Jeff Craddock (16th season)

Last season: 15-0 (won state championship; defeated East Surry, 50-10)

2019 first game: 7 p.m., Aug. 23, hosting Rocky Mount High

Key losses: Ty’Trez Higgs, Melik Ward, Kendarius Jenkins, Keon Caudle, Zion Brooks, Matt Medford, Jyron Albritton, Jaquez Edge, Maquez Edge, Clifton Joyner Jr.

Fast fact: Tarboro is on a 30-game winning streak that contains two state championships. The Vikings last lost in the regional round of the 1-AA playoffs in 2016. Tarboro’s most recent regular-season loss came on Sept. 16, 2016 on the road at Southern Nash.