AUBURN | The secondary was a major concern for the Tigers earlier this season after one projected starter was dismissed and a top reserve was lost to a broken ankle.
The situation seemed dire when sophomore Joshua Holsey was lost for the season after a practice injury in October. Since then, though, assistant coaches Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith have created three-man rotations at cornerback and safety that remained steady though October and into November.
That development played a big role in the Tigers' seven-game win streak.
"The secondary has done a really good job and our defensive coaches have done a very good job of double-teaching a lot of guys," coach Gus Malzahn said Wednesday night. "Some of them have to know corner and dime and regular safety, so our guys have done an outstanding job filling in because we're very thin back there."
They're doing more than simply holding down the positions.
Auburn has collected 12 interceptions this season, which includes 11 by defensive backs. Star safety Robenson Therezie leads the way with four while boundary safety Ryan Smith, who began the season as a reserve, has intercepted three passes.
The Tigers intercepted a grand total of two passes last season.
Only one was by a defensive back.
"We just have a different mentality this season. Going after the ball is a priority," said Smith, who intercepted a pass against Georgia. "We take a lot of pride in creating turnovers. That's what great teams do, so that's what we're trying to do."
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Auburn practiced for 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon in shorts and shoulder pads. "Had a solid practice," Malzahn said. "We're going to have a very light practice (Wednesday) and then we're going to let our guys enjoy Thanksgiving. Then we'll get into our normal Friday routine after that."
Malzahn believes all the talk about Auburn's offense and Alabama's defense is overshadowing other elements of the Iron Bowl matchup. "Special teams (have been) a big factor for us this year and it'll be a big factor Saturday, no doubt," he said. "I feel like we've got one of the better kickers and one of the better punters in all of college football. They've had outstanding years and I expect them to play well Saturday."
Auburn has shown an extreme tendency to run this season, but that may change this weekend. "The better team you play, the more balanced you have to be," Malzahn said. "If you look in the past, we've thrown the ball effectively when we've had to. This year, we happen to be running it. It really just depends on each group from year to year."
Malzahn said he's been impressed with how quarterback Nick Marshall has improved this season, but said some of the most encouraging moments happen well outside the spotlight. "Sometimes it's in practice, maybe something where it clicks and he gets it and he can react and not have to think and be a little more natural," Malzahn said. "Some have been in games, but the majority of them have been in practices. He's feeling more and more comfortable with each practice and each game."