Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Spanish Fork's Robb Russell (42) celebrates pass deflection with Copper Beck against Desert Hills during the 3A semi final game in Salt Lake City Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.
It's improved vastly, just with the discipline, the technique. The ability for our D-Line to eat up blockers and allow our linebackers to go and make plays is a huge improvement. —Spanish Fork coach Kirk Chambers

SPANISH FORK — Spanish Fork’s debut season in 3A last year was a terrific one.

Even though the Dons came up short of a region title, they upset No. 2 Juan Diego in the playoffs to advance to their first semifinal since 1995. In the semis, Spanish Fork gave No. 1 Hurricane a run for its money and only lost by three.

In that semifinal loss, Spanish Fork’s defense had no answer for eventual 3A MVP Brian Scott as he rushed for 220 yards in a dominant display of power football.

The Dons walked out of Rice-Eccles Stadium that chilly November evening knowing they needed to shore up the defensive line in the offseason if they hoped to make an even deeper run the following year.

Kirk Chambers learned that fact quickly. Shortly after he was hired as Spanish Fork’s new head football coach in April, he started to hear from many people that shoring up the defensive line had to be a major objective.

Incredibly just seven months later, what was once a liability is now a strength for Spanish Fork as it prepares for this Friday’s 3A state championship game against Dixie at 11 a.m MST.

Chambers deflects most of the credit for the improved defensive play up front to assistant coach Kevin Nicholl. Also in his first year at Spanish Fork, Nicholl has completely changed the attitude and culture about the defensive front and the results are obvious.

“It’s improved vastly, just with the discipline, the technique. The ability for our D-Line to eat up blockers and allow our linebackers to go and make plays is a huge improvement,” Chambers said.

The improvements have been gradual throughout the season, but that’s always what Nicholl expected.

“It’s a simple position. Hit the man in front of you,” Nicholl said. “There’s a lot of keys that I instill in these kids, and it’s repetitive. It’s kind of like education and teaching; routine, structure, keep it simple. And it’s been successful so far."

Just as impressive is the personnel Spanish Fork is getting it done with. All four starting defensive lineman from last year graduated, so Nicholl was starting from scratch when he took the job.

Converted starting linebacker Wyatt Groves brought some experience to the line, but that was the extent of the varsity experience Nicholl had to work with. It hasn’t been a problem at all. With Groves and Gus Snell at defensive end and Charles Siilata and Aaron Duffin at tackles, the Dons have consistently won the battle of the trenches.

That improvement was never more evident than in a brutal opening-round playoff game with Pine View. Not only did the Panthers roll into town with one of the biggest offensive lines in 3A, but Prentiss Miller came into the game just a few yards shy of the 2,000-yard mark.

He easily surpassed that mark by rushing for 176 yards against Spanish Fork, but he needed 35 carries to get those yards as the Dons more than held their own playing smash-mouth football. Even though Miller had some big runs, Spanish Fork got plenty of stops too which forced Pine View to throw — which led to three interceptions.

“That first game, technique and everything went out the window, it was a pure fight,” Nicholl said. “I had never been in a physical battle like that. For us to overcome them in the first round gave me all the confidence that we could do anything because physically you’re not going to come up against bigger monsters than they had.”

Dixie dual-threat quarterback Blake Barney will present some different challenges for Spanish Fork’s defensive line, but the quartet of Groves, Snell, Siilata and Duffin have been building toward this moment all season.