TARBORO – Despite losing 17 players to graduation, Jeff Craddock and the Tarboro Vikings are not looking at 2014 as a rebuilding year.
Instead, the Vikings’ aim is to reload and continue their quest for a state title.
“The biggest thing is, we’re young,” Craddock said. “But we face that obstacle every year. We just have to get better every day. We don’t need to be great in August, but we don’t need to be bad either.
“We just have to keep getting better. The players need to keep listening to their coaches, and we need to keep coaching them up.”
While the Vikings graduated a seasoned signal caller and 1,000-yard rusher, Craddock doesn’t see any gaping holes on his roster.
In fact, he sees no holes at all.
“We have to fill a lot, but I don’t see any huge gap or hole on the team,” he said. “Filling the quarterback position is our biggest need, but we just have to get better overall.
“We don’t have a lot of experience, and we have to keep working on fundamentals.”
The quarterback battle has come down to a two-man race between converted running back Malcolm Speller – a 5-foot-7, 155-pound senior – and the lone sophomore on the Vikings’ roster Dawson Harris (5-foot-10, 175), who was last year’s junior varsity starter at quarterback.
While Craddock said Harris might have a slight edge, he was quick to add the race is a veritable dead heat.
Both bring skills to the table the make them viable triggers for the Vikings’ triple-option offense.
“Both have their strengths and weaknesses,” Craddock said. “Speller is faster and able to make more plays running the ball. Harris is a better thrower and has experience running the offense.
“We’ll have a much better idea which can handle the load (after the Jamboree).”
With 2013’s top rusher Radja Bobbitt soon to be plying his trade at N.C. Wesleyan, the running back spots have solid group of players in the mix.
Returning senior Markese Clapp (6-foot-1, 210) is already penciled in at fullback with fellow senior DeShan Farmer (5-foot-9, 155) a likely starter at one halfback spot.
The other starting slot and exactly how the rotation will shake out – and who will earn the carries – will be determined in remaining practices and Friday’s performance in the Tarboro Jamboree.
“There are six or seven in the rotation,” Craddock said. “Now we want to see who separates himself from the others.”
Although only six starters return on offense, the reason Craddock is not fretting over replacements at the skill positions is because five of those starters are on the offensive line. An offensive line returning intact gives the Vikings an advantage few teams can boast.
“Praise the Lord for that,” Craddock said. “That should be the strength of the team. It gives the running backs time to develop, and maybe they can open bigger holes.
“It’s a nice luxury to have the entire offensive line returning.”
Defensively, the Vikings have only four starters back.
However, Craddock feels good about his team’s stopping ability in a unit that will be centered around a deep linebacking corps.
Senior Damian Johnson (6-feet, 200) returns at outside linebacker and along with Clapp, who moved from defensive end to inside linebacker, will anchor the unit.
A quartet of 2013 backups round out the corps with 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior De’Airrius Payne leading the way after having “a really good summer,” along with senior Arieus Hines (5-foot-10, 210, sr.), who “is going to be a good player.”
Craddock also noted juniors Tay Battle (5-foot-7, 180) and Daniel Lewis (5-foot-8, 155) as having the “chance to be good,” but just lacking experience.
After going 11-3 and seeing the season end in the 1-A Eastern Regional semifinals last season, Craddock said expectations for 2014 are no different than any other season for the Vikings.
“We’re going to be one of the best teams in 1-A,” Craddock said. “If we bring our best to field, we will be the best. It doesn’t who is here, if we do our best, then we’ll win the state title.”