KNOXVILLE -- Eric Gordon simply kept laughing.
That was the only way the Tennessee defensive back could explain his unusual knack for suddenly showing up and making his presence felt after a recurring disappearing act.
"When you get a little chance to be out there and you make plays, I think it pretty much sends a message," he said Monday at UT's weekly media day.
The sophomore from Nashville appeared for the first time in four games against Middle Tennessee State on Saturday with four tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception and return that set up a field goal just before halftime of the Volunteers' shutout victory.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Gordon is third on the team with five tackles for loss even though he neither played against Alabama nor registered any stats in two other games. All but three of his 14 tackles this season came in three games (Montana, Georgia and MTSU).
Gordon and junior college transfer Byron Moore are alternating at the Vols' nickel back position.
"Both did a good job [against MTSU]," coach Derek Dooley said. "What Eric does is he can go out there and make some plays for you, and his biggest challenge is his dependability in lining up right, knowing what to do and not giving up big plays. We want to see Eric play more, but the dependability is the key on that."
The Vols continue to rotate players throughout the secondary. Justin Coleman and Marsalis Teague are alternating at one cornerback spot, and Brian Randolph, Prentiss Waggner and Rod Wilks are rotating between the two safety spots. UT has not been settled in the secondary since free safety Janzen Jackson's dismissal late in the preseason, and strong safety Brent Brewer's season-ending knee injury two games ago forced the latest round of shuffling.
Despite all of the shuffles and the struggles, the Vols are somehow 17th nationally in pass defense, but that stat will face its biggest test of the season at No. 8 Arkansas on Saturday night. The Razorbacks, behind quarterback Tyler Wilson and a plethora of big-play receivers, lead the Southeastern Conference in passing yards (319), total yards (451) and points (37.7) per game.
"They've got a quarterback who has a real play-making mentality, a little bit like [UT's] Tyler [Bray] has, and they have a lot of speed on the perimeter and they play fast," Dooley said. "It's not just they run fast, they run fast without the ball and they have a real confident swagger to them. Every time a team inches close to them, they answer the bell, pop-pop-pop-touchdown. I've seen it in so many games.
"Yes, this will be our biggest challenge in defending the pass. It's really hard to stop them, not many teams have."
Since Alabama's AJ McCarron lit up the Vols for 284 passing yards, UT has held South Carolina and MTSU to 220 combined yards through the air. Neither of those teams are, as Dooley put it, "the Oakland Raiders of the 70s throwing the ball," and the Razorbacks have seven players averaging more than 10 yards per catch.
"The big plays are what really gets you against these guys, and they make them all different ways," Dooley said. "They throw a lot of shallow crosses, and they catch it and run. If we get a little bit outleveraged in the back end, we're not 100-meter guys back there, so they'll run around us. We've got to make sure we tackle when they catch it quickly."
In his three years in the UT program, Gordon has been regarded as one of the Vols' most physical defensive backs. Defensive tackle Daniel Hood noted two big hits Gordon had in practice within the last couple of weeks on tailback/receiver Rajion Neal and tailback/return specialist Devrin Young.
"Rajion, if he didn't knock him out, he about did," Hood said. "Then he hit Devrin, too, on a little end-around. Then he turns around to the game, now you all see it."
Gordon would like to show more of what he can do, and he admitted bouncing in and out of the lineup has been tough.
"He's probably frustrated a little bit, as all players are when they're not playing as much as they think they should," Dooley said. "But like most players, they tend to focus on things that don't involve them instead of focusing on their play and their dependability and their consistency, and that's what we've talked to Eric about: Quit worrying about the other guys back there, line up right, play your technique right, tackle the guy."
That's what's Gordon done when given the chance as the nickel back, which is a position he likes to play and fits his style.
"I've just been mature about the situation, trying not to let it get to me," he said. "I can't really complain about not getting playing time; I don't really control that. It's not in my hands. When I get out there I just try and make plays."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.