Auburn Football: Tigers' Spring Focus Must Be Fixing the Secondary

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMarch 18, 2014

Auburn S Jermaine Whitehead chases Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham
Auburn S Jermaine Whitehead chases Missouri WR Dorial Green-BeckhamKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Auburn was 13 seconds away from taking home the crystal football last season, falling to Florida State 34-31 in the BCS National Championship Game.

The reason they couldn't close out the final 13 seconds was a secondary that gave up 77 passing yards on the Seminoles' final drive of the game—which resulted in a two-yard touchdown from Jameis Winston to Kelvin Benjamin.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus MalzahnJayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Poor secondary play was par for the course for the 2013 Tigers. They finished 13th in the SEC in pass defense after giving up 257.7 yards per game, and last in the SEC in opponent pass plays of 30 or more yards with 28.

On top of that, the Tigers have to replace starting cornerback Chris Davis and starting boundary safety Ryan Smith.

Fixing the secondary is Job No. 1 for head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff, and the second-year head coach of the Tigers knows that building depth is key.

"We didn't have a whole lot of what I'd say quality depth last year," Malzahn told Charles Goldberg of "We had a lot of moving parts on the back end and we were probably one injury away on the back end from being in a really dire situation so this spring will be really good for us in all areas and we'll have more depth coming our spring we feel like."

Auburn CB Jonathon Mincy (6) and S Jermaine Whitehead (9)
Auburn CB Jonathon Mincy (6) and S Jermaine Whitehead (9)RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

It's not a tall order for Auburn.

They've recruited well in the secondary, have starting cornerback Jonathon Mincy, free safety Jermaine Whitehead and "star" Robenson Therezie returning—all of whom showed flashes of brilliance last season. But consistency was a problem.

Auburn S Josh Holsey
Auburn S Josh HolseyDave Martin/Associated Press

Help is coming, according to Goldberg.

Derrick Moncrief, the top junior college safety in the class of 2014, will battle to replace Smith at boundary safety, Trovon Reed moved from wide receiver to cornerback, Rudy Ford moved from corner to safety and safety Josh Holsey—who can play either corner or safety—is recovering from ACL surgery and doing some work this spring.

Auburn doesn't have to boast the nation's best pass defense, or even at the top of the SEC heap.

With an offense that plays at warp speed and scores a lot of points, the defense is going be on the field more than it would be at other programs and, if Malzahn has things his way, will be facing teams looking to pass out of a hole.

But 257 yards per game and a susceptibility to the big play won't cut it.

Rashad Greene's 49-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter of the BCS Championship Game set up the game-winning touchdown
Rashad Greene's 49-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter of the BCS Championship Game set up the game-winning touchdownKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Stopping the big play is more important.

If they can keep offenses in front of them and make the opposition work for six, sometimes those touchdowns turn into field goals instead. That's a net win for a guy like Malzahn, who lights up scoreboards around the south.

If Auburn can cut down on the big plays, and stay opportunistic on defense, they'll be fine. The Tigers finished tied for seventh in the SEC last year with 13 interceptions gained. Not bad, but not great either. It certainly will be effective enough if the new faces in the secondary cover better and, perhaps more importantly, take better angles on tackles.

Malzahn made it work in Year 1 with an SEC Championship. If he finds answers in the secondary this spring, it might be all he needs to polish off those 13 seconds and win a national title.


* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics are courtesy of and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.