ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. -- Tennessee's defense doesn't know who its star will be this season.
The Volunteers have a pretty good idea who their "Star" will be, though.
It's essentially the nickelback position in coordinator Sal Sunseri's scheme, and Eric Gordon has had his sights set on the position since the offseason began.
His time at the nickelback position last season certainly has helped.
"I just feel I've locked down on my technique a little better, but everything I feel like is going pretty well," the Nashville native said Monday morning after Tennessee finished the first of two practices on the team's fourth day at Milligan College. "I'm very comfortable at the Star position. I've been playing it for a while, so it's a comfortable fit for me."
The 5-foot-9, 190-pound third-year junior had just one tackle in Saturday's scrimmage at Science Hill High School, but he made a handful of plays from the spot in 2011. The most memorable one was the game-winning interception return score against Vanderbilt. Yet it's always seemed to be feast-or-famine for a noted risk-taker.
For every moment he showed up last season -- an interception against Middle Tennessee State or a big hit against tailback Isaiah Crowell against Georgia for lost yardage -- there were just as many moments he was nowhere to be seen. Gordon had no tackles against Buffalo and just one stop in four other games. He never played against Alabama and Kentucky.
Even in a new defense, Gordon's position and challenge remain the same.
"Eric's doing good," coach Derek Dooley said. "He's playing that "Star," the nick spot. He's on all of our special teams.
"He's the same guy: he's active, he's disruptive, he makes plays and of course his challenge is consistency."
Tennessee's secondary is looking for reliable playmakers. Corner Prentiss Waggner and safety Brian Randolph have shown that ability in the past, and corner Marsalis Teague showed it in Saturday's scrimmage. The senior was burned on deep passes on more than one or two occasions last season, but he broke up four passes in the Vols' scrimmage.
"Marsalis had a really good scrimmage," Dooley said "It was probably his best scrimmage since he's been here, and I'm proud of him for that. He started making some plays in the deep part of the field that historically he hadn't made.
"He's doing it because he's playing with a little more confidence and he's trusting his technique. It showed on the field, and I hope it continues. We need him to."
The Vols also need Gordon, but they need the consistent one who uses his aggressive tendencies in the right spots. Sunseri's defense is built to stop the run and play aggressively in the secondary. Gordon believes his skills match those aspects, and Dooley said the defense should help him "create disruptiveness" against offenses.
"I love that physical style of play," Gordon said. "The "Star" position is a very versatile position. You're filling in [against] the run, covering a few guys -- I think it fits me perfectly.
"They pretty much want me to know when to take the risks. That's the biggest thing, knowing when I can do stuff, when I can jump routes. Other than that, they want me aligned right and following the scheme."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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