Vols coach Derek Dooley talks about DB Eric Gordon, Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead and LB Daryl Vereen
The coaches have dangled five spots for the defensive backs all along.
Tennessee worked on its Nickel package extensively in training camp, and it gave every indication to its stable of options that there would be plenty of snaps for at least one guy not technically in the starting lineup.
Eric Gordon heard all that talk in August, but he still wanted some proof that the Vols were really going to lean on that package when the season finally started. Consider the sophomore a believer now after UT deployed him and four others in the secondary regularly last week and figures to do so again at Neyland Stadium against Cincinnati on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 3:30 p.m.).
"I really didn't know how much we were going to run it," Gordon said after practice on Tuesday morning. "But these (spread) teams, like this team, we're going to be on the field a lot more.
"For me, I feel like I've definitely got the system down pat, and I know what I need to be doing. I feel very comfortable at nickelback, I just feel like week-in and week-out my preparation is going to be key."
The Bearcats (1-0) require plenty of advance study with their ability to exploit teams on the perimeter with quick passes, a strong running game and a quarterback who can also hurt defenses with deep balls down the field.
The versatility of an offense like Cincinnati's requires flexibility in a defense to slow it down, and Gordon is emerging for the Vols (1-0) as exactly the kind of player needed to do it.
Never shy about initiating contact, the combination of Gordon's physical style with his ability to also play in coverage makes him attractive in a role that ideally needs to be filled by a sure tackler on the perimeter and a capable defender against the pass. And while Gordon still has room to grow in both phases, his debut against Montana was largely encouraging for UT with four tackles — including one solo effort that went for a 2-yard loss.
"Physically, it does (suit him)," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "If he could get mentally where he is physically, it will really be a help for our football team. The problem is he steps up and makes a good play, but then he has a mental breakdown and gives up a bad play. We're looking for consistency from Eric.
"The biggest breakdowns he has are mental. He gets himself in trouble early in the down he can't use his skills to help us. That's his challenge. Hopefully we'll keep getting better at that."
The slightest misstep against an up-tempo offense can produce points in a hurry, particularly since the Bearcats have weapons all over the field.
UT is trying to balance them out with a few big-play threats, too, which Gordon hinted might include more action for him in the backfield.
"Oh, nickel is very fun," Gordon said. "You can do a lot of things there, and guys really don't know when you're coming. That's the beauty of it."
Take It Back: Only seven passes officially went down as incompletions, and none of those were picked off on Saturday night against Montana.
But there were two balls that didn't show up on the stats sheet that would have been interceptions if not for penalties for interfering with tight end Mychal Rivera, and Tyler Bray wanted one of them in particular back in his hand.
"The first one was definitely a bad decision," the Vols quarterback said. "I should have checked the ball down ... let Tauren (Poole) make a play, or Marlin (Lane) or whoever was in there, and then let (Michael) Palardy kick a field goal.
"The second one, if we wouldn't have grabbed him, he would have caught the ball."
Poll Position: The Vols still are comfortably outside of the top 25 in both major polls, but they're in the mix for both after opening the season with a lopsided win over a Football Championship Subdivision member.
UT earned six votes from the panel for The Associated Press Top 25, as voted on by media members. It also picked up five votes from the coaches, who vote in the USA Today rankings.
The Vols were joined by Cincinnati in the coaches poll after this week's opponent earned one vote.
Bumps And Bruises: Defensive tackle Maurice Couch was limited as he deals with a sprained knee, and he's considered day-to-day by Dooley.
Fellow tackle Malik Jackson missed practice Tuesday morning with a stomach illness.