Anchored by improved defense, Flyers ready for title game

Dixie's defense is much improved from a year ago. Photo taken in St. George, Utah, Aug. 24, 2012 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Dixie’s offense is good, no doubt about it. But it’s the defense that has put the Flyers over the top in 2012.

Last season Dixie scored 34 points a game, but surrendered 26. This year, the offense is up to 35 a game, but the defense is giving up eight fewer points a game at 18.

Last week’s 14-13 win over Juan Diego is a perfect example of the improvement as the Flyers lost to the Soaring Eagle 41-0 a year ago.

Other scores tell us that Dixie’s defense is a whole different animal in 2012. Dixie beat Springville 28-13 this season. The 2010 game was 55-48 in Springville’s favor and the 2011 game ended 41-35 for Dixie. In seven of Dixie’s 10 games last season, the Flyers’ opponents had at least 22 points. And four of those were wins.

Sure, Dixie was winning some games, but they weren’t so much beating people as out-scoring them.

Juan Diego’s Jessie Springer fumbles during a key moment Friday night. The fumble was recovered by Tanner Webster in the state semifinals Friday night, Salt Lake City, Utah, Nov. 9, 2012 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, St. George News

This year, Dixie has allowed just four opponents to score 22 points or more. In 2010, Dixie gave up 35 points a game. In 2011 that number shrunk to 26 ppg. This season, Dixie has allowed just 18 per game in the ultra-tough Region 9.

“We’re smarter this year, and more disciplined,” said linebacker Taylor Berry. “Everyone is playing their position and trusting their teammates to do the same.”

Star defensive lineman Jess Lambert agrees with Berry’s assessment, adding a few factors of his own.

“Experience is big, too,” he said. “A lot of these guys are the same ones that were playing on those teams two years ago. But we’re wiser and more experienced now. We’re also having more fun. Some people discount that, but I think it’s a huge factor. Practice is 20 times more fun this year. And that makes the games more fun as well.”

Some more evidence that Lambert may be onto something: Dixie did something no one else had this season in keeping Juan Diego under 19 points. The Soaring Eagle had been racking up huge numbers this season, scoring at least 30 points in eight games and averaging 43.4 points a game the last eight weeks.

Of course, playing better defense isn’t as simple as being disciplined and having fun.

“The kids have done a better job of playing as a team unit,” defensive coordinator Rick Berry said. “We have some good leaders in Taylor Berry and Jesse Lambert and we’ve also got a lot of great role players who come in and do their jobs.”

As Dixie prepares to face Spanish Fork in the championship game Friday morning (11 a.m. at Rice-Eccles), all those factors will come into play. Dixie has faced a triple-option and a wing-T offense the past two weeks, so getting back to defensing the spread will be interesting.

“Certainly, it is an advantage in preparing for a team that is similar offensively to you to get ready,” coach Blaine Monkres said. “I think both teams will be able to mirror some of the things that the other team does fairly easily.”

As for the marked improvement in his team’s defense the past two years, Monkres said it’s a matter of trust.

“If you trust your teammates, you can do your job and not have to try and do too much,” he said. “These guys trust each other. They know that if they fulfill their assignments, their teammates will as well and that will get the job done. The kids really buy into what we are doing.”

Meanwhile, Lambert, the senior anchor for a Dixie team hoping to capture its seventh football state championship in school history, doesn’t look like a defensive lineman. He’s got no missing teeth or scars and he rarely snarls. But he has played his way into the most valuable defensive player the Flyers have.

“He’s just a beast, an animal on defense,” DHS teammate Taylor Berry says. “He’s everywhere. Jesse is so great. He’s an impact player.”

Berry should know. As an impact player at linebacker for Dixie, he has a front row seat to Lambert’s mayhem.

“I wish he was with us on the linebacking crew,” Berry said. “He really gets after it.”

The thing is, Lambert was a linebacker last year. With some trepidation, he accepted his coaches’ decision to move him to defensive line.

“With Jesse anchoring the line, we are so much better of a defense,” coordinator Rick Berry said. “He just disrupts everything the other offense is trying to do.”

Stunningly, Lambert has 109 tackles this season, an inordinately high tally for a defensive lineman, who are often called on just to take up space so the linebackers can make a play.

“Sometimes I do need to do that, but as a defensive lineman, you mostly just play off of instinct and reaction,” Lambert said. “I am fortunate enough to be quicker and faster than most of the guys trying to block me.”

Lambert started at defensive end his sophomore year and in his first game at the varsity level, he had four sacks and intercepted a pass and returned it for a 31-yard touchdown.

“I was so scared for that first varsity game,” he said. “But after it was over, I was like, “Oh yeah, it’s on.’ ” He’s been starting ever since, moving from the line in 2010, to linebacker in 2011 and then back to the D-line this season.

Where ever he starts the play, he always seems to end it on or near the ball carrier.

“Jesse has been a real key to our defense,” Rick Berry said. “He and Taylor have provided a lot of leadership, both vocally and with their play.”

Lambert admits he enjoyed his time at linebacker the most, with one caveat.

“Linebacker was more fun because you do a lot of reading of the offense and then reacting,” he said. “But winning is what’s really fun and where we are this year, all the experiences we’ve had, make this the most fun of all.”

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Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2012, all rights reserved.

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