KNOXVILLE — DeAngelo Willingham didn’t have much choice.
With a handful of capable players ready to take his starting job, the University of Tennessee defensive back needed a solid spring.
Willingham has accomplished that — and more. The rising senior has transformed an already impressive physique and impressed coaches at cornerback and safety throughout spring practice.
Vols coach Phillip Fulmer was clearly upset with much of his team following Tuesday’s practice, but he again praised Willingham — a junior college transfer who played inconsistently last season after injuries forced him into the starting lineup at corner.
“My thing is to find a consistent 11, and then a consistent 15 and then hopefully a consistent 22 on both sides of the ball that will play like DeAngelo Willingham has played this spring,” Fulmer said after Tuesday’s practice. “He wasn’t a highly recruited guy at all ... and he had a lot to learn. But he’s just gotten better every day that he’s been here. Now he’s playing like a guy who has a chance to be really special.
“That’s what I’m looking for from everybody, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask from everybody.”
Willingham — a South Carolina native who came to UT by way of California’s College of the Desert — looks bigger than last season, but he’s actually dropped seven pounds. The 6-foot-1 player is now at 203 pounds, and he says he is stronger, faster and more confident.
“I think he went from a six to a nine-and-a-half,” Vols receiver Gerald Jones said of Willingham. “All that comes from coming after practice on your own time. If you watch DeAngelo, he’s out here working with Eric Berry, and they’re working when no one else is. He’s always willing to compete. He’s always asking me and Denarius Moore to come out there after practice and give him good looks.
“He wants to work and play against the best, and that’s why he’s gotten so much better. He’s passionate about the game.”
Barring injuries, playing time will be a precious privilege in coach Larry Slade’s secondary this fall. Berry and Demetrice Morley figure to be a premier 1-2 combinationa at safety, but things seem less settled at cornerback. Willingham and rising sophomore Dennis Rogan — one of the team’s best athletes — have been first-teamers this spring, but three more players with starting experience will be cleared for contact this summer. Last season’s opening game starting duo of Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines will be back from torn ACLs. Sophomore Brent Vinson, who started the second half of last season and played with a sore shoulder that kept popping out of socket, will also be in the mix.
Gaines will be a sixth-year senior, Johnson was the team’s most consistent defensive back until his injury, and Vinson garnered praise while playing through immense pain.
Willingham knows nothing is given in a secondary that defensive coordinator John Chavis calls “potentially the best I’ve ever coached.”
“You’ve got to earn every single second you get back there,” Willingham said last week. “You can’t be taking plays off and expect to get on the field.”
Willingham is playing like a man who doesn’t plan to surrender his spot.
“I think I’d put DeAngelo at corner, safety or Sam linebacker if I was the coach,” Jones said. “He’s so strong, and he’s got long arms, and he’s athletic, and he’s physical. I could put him anywhere on the field if I was the coach, and I promise you I’d put him somewhere.”