KNOXVILLE -- A year ago, Eric Gordon had the kind of freshman football season at Tennessee that hinted of greatness. The defensive back from Nashville picked off two passes, totaled 47 tackles (the most of any freshman) and started six games.
When junior Jantzen Jackson was dismissed from the Volunteers before the season began, it was generally considered that Gordon had as much chance as anybody to become the fiercest face of the UT secondary.
Then the real games got under way and Gordon tied for a team-best four solo tackles against Montana in the season opener.
But after that, he pretty much went the way of that guy in your freshman physics class that you never saw again until 30 years had passed and he shows up at homecoming driving the Porsche with the blonde bombshell in the passenger seat.
OK, so Gordon really only disappeared for the Vols' first eight games, starting nary a one and not seeing the field for a single second against Alabama.
But then came Saturday night inside Neyland Stadium, and Middle Tennessee was the opponent for UT's homecoming.
And with 1:39 to go in the second quarter, Middle seemingly driving to cut into a 21-0 UT lead, Gordon flashed in front of a Jeff Murphy pass and returned it 17 yards, setting up a Big Orange field goal at the close of the half that secured the Vols' final score in a 24-0 win.
What Gordon thought of that pickoff and four total tackles -- which included two for losses -- is unknown. He declined to meet with media.
But defensive back Brian Randolph said it was huge.
"It was a big weight off his chest," Randolph said. "He hadn't been doing too good early."
Exactly why Gordon's playing time has shrunk this season remains a mystery.
As Randolph said, "Eric's very aggressive. He can hit you. He's a very physical guy."
And maybe that's why he was out there against the Blue Raiders. The Vols struggled to get a single turnover through the first half of the season.
Against South Carolina a week ago they forced three. They forced three more against Middle.
"That's our goal, three a game," Dooley said. "That's our goal. I'm going to tell you, we are going to need a bunch next week [at Arkansas]."
Said linebacker Austin Johnson, who also got a pick against Middle: "Our coaches have been harping on us all week every week in practice to force turnovers. It's finally paying off in games."
Perhaps its paying off because Gordon is playing meaningful minutes again for the first time in weeks.