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Defensive end Corey Tucker,left, has helped linebacker Alex Kirkendoll (17) and Marion County play stingy defense in advancing again to a Class 2A state football semifinal.
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Marion County lineman Ismael Avila (78) is one of the top playmakers on a defense that has given up an average of 9.9 points per game for a 12-1 team.

JASPER, Tenn. — It's not big in numbers. It's not big in size. But it seemingly shows up big every Friday night.

"It" is Marion County's defensive line.

The Warriors line up defensively in a 3-3 stack. The three up front — senior ends Ismael Avila and Corey Tucker and senior noseguard Ty Heifner — often have handled their duties against their five offensive counterparts this season, leaving the rest of their defensive teammates to play eight on six.

As a result Marion County is 12-1 and giving up an average of 9.9 points per game heading into tonight's home TSSAA Class 2A semifinal against Austin-East (12-1). Kickoff is scheduled for 8 EST.

Marion's defense is led in tackles by linebackers and Mr. Football finalists Alex Kirkendoll and Hunter McClain. But the progress the stop unit has made throughout the course of the season correlates with the linemen in particular.

"They've really worked hard to get where they are," Marion County coach Joey Mathis said. "They didn't just show up the first day and play like that."

As the line's play has elevated, the Warriors have reduced their average allowance of points per game to seven over their last eight games. They have two shutouts, including one of Westmoreland in the first round of the playoffs.

Marion has given up two touchdowns apiece to their last two opponents. But both times the second TD came against the reserves.

"They're unselfish," Mathis said of his defensive linemen. "They may not always make the tackle, but most of the time they make the play. We've got two Mr. Football candidates at linebacker, and they'll be the first to tell you they play behind a tremendous defensive line that absolutely makes their jobs easier."

So how do they do it?

"Everybody depends on each other," Tucker said.

It's a simplistic approach, but an effective one.

"I just work and try to be the best I can be, trying to improve," Avila said. "I'm just trying to make plays for my team."

Their formula for success is rather simplistic, too. But they've executed it well.

"We've been good at stopping the run," Heifner said. "If you go back and look at the film you can see when we've done what we wanted to stopping the run, that's helped us get to the quarterback. Then you hit them a couple of times and they're always looking for us. That takes a toll, too."

Said Mathis: "If you can drop eight and get a pass rush with three, that's going to help anyone."

Marion's defense will likely get a stern test tonight from an Austin-East team that averages 45.3 points per game. It has scored at least 20 in every game.

The Roadrunners are led by quarterback and Coastal Carolina commitment Darius Harper, who at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds is taller than Marion's defensive linemen and weighs only a little less. Going into last week's game he was averaging 285.6 yards of total offense per game.

But regardless of the opponent's offensive philosophy, the Warriors are convinced they have a response.

"It's the same way we prepare each week," Avila said. "We work hard and do what we're supposed to do. We just do what the coaches tell us to do. We believe in them and trust them."

Tonight's winner will advance to the state-championship game Dec. 3 at noon EST at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. The Warriors are seeking their their third consecutive appearance.

"This group is the closest of all in the past three years," Tucker said. "We spend a lot of time with each other away from the field."

But tonight it's all about time spent on the field with the hope of a return to the state final, albeit with a different result than the previous runner-up finishes.

"I think we can really prove a point, and that's that the past two years weren't just for nothing," Heifner said. "We're competing. We're trying to win. We're coming, and we want to change things this time. I think we can really make a statement."

Contact Kelley Smiddie at ksmiddie@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at @KelleySmiddie.

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