KNOXVILLE - After not playing as much as he would have liked last season, Eric Gordon got as many plays as he could handle in Tennessee's first game of 2012 -- on defense, kickoffs and punts.
But coach Derek Dooley's claim that Gordon asked to come out for a breather?
"Maybe a little bit on special teams," the fourth-year junior defensive back said with a laugh after the Volunteers finished practice Tuesday morning. "I've just got to suck it up and play."
The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder from Nashville has come up with key plays before, when given opportunities. Those chances were scattered a season ago, but Gordon was back at it in the Vols' win against North Carolina State last Friday.
"I always notice Eric out there making plays, even in practice," cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. "He sort of has a knack for making plays. He's always around the football, and the main thing with Eric right now is just straining and playing fast all the time [so] he can make even more plays."
Against the Wolfpack, Gordon flew to the ball and upended a receiver on a bubble screen for a 2-yard loss. As a gunner on the Vols' punt-coverage unit, he smothered the Wolfpack returner right after he caught the ball. On his fourth-quarter interception of Mike Glennon, Gordon baited a throw to a covered receiver on a corner route.
Even he admitted his debut as the Star (or nickel back) in Tennessee's new 3-4 defense went better than he envisioned.
"I'm trying to have an even better week this week," Gordon said.
Gordon's aggressiveness fits the style and attitude of the Vols' new defense, and he was just one of many players that blitzed at some point against N.C. State. That pressure aided in the secondary's four-interception performance, and the Vols also delivered some big hits on Glennon and his receivers. Despite some early-game miscommunication and an undisciplined pass rush, Tennessee's defense was active and impacted the game.
"That's sort of what we preach every day, but flying around and being reckless doesn't mean you're not playing with scheme discipline," Dooley said. "There's a level of discipline you have to play with on every snap, so learning to be aggressive, have a little ownership in the play but still play within the parameters of the system, that's the key. Sometimes we do it and sometimes we don't."
It was the key for Gordon during an up-and-down 2011 season. The Vols now are honing him in on the Star position, which he said has helped not have to worry about learning multiple positions. He also said he's studying and watching video with more of a focus on "strictly details."
"He's in a lot better condition with his mind," Waggner said. "He knows the plays. He's on every special team, so that goes to show how well conditioned he is and how good of a player he is."
There's hardly any of those good players left from Gordon's signing class, the infamous 2009 group inked by former coach Lane Kiffin. The highly rated departures -- tailback Bryce Brown, safety Janzen Jackson, receiver Nu'keese Richardson, linebacker Jerod Askew and safety Darren Myles, to name five -- are noteworthy. Only seven players remain from that 22-player class.
Yet Gordon and two other '09ers had big nights against N.C. State. Zach Rogers made two big catches, one for a 72-yard score and another for a first down. Marsalis Teague sealed the game with a last-second interception and locked down the starting corner spot opposite Waggner.
It had to be gratifying for Tennessee's whole secondary, too, to have four interceptions. The Vols picked off just nine passes last season and gave up a bunch of big plays. Though the group still needs work, Teague attributed the positive early performance -- from Gordon and the whole group -- to a better approach.
"I would definitely say that we're all more focused this year, him in particular as well," the senior said. "He's been doing a good job this offseason as well, staying focused and just doing the extra things -- putting in the extra work and all that stuff. I would definitely say our approach to doing everything has been a lot different back in the offseason and camp, to make sure we push each other in practice and push everyone else around us as well."
Gordon's playmaking certainly has pushed him into a steadier role in Tennessee's defense.
"This year I'm getting a lot more reps, and I'm out there a lot more," he said. "Every time I'm out there I'm trying to make something happen and leave it all out on the field every single play and every snap. It just feels good to be out there making plays."