KNOXVILLE — DeAngelo Willingham and Ahmad Paige play at crowded positions, so those two Tennessee football players needed good springs to stay on the field.
Robert Ayers and Luke Stocker play at injury-riddled spots, so they needed to play well to keep their positions on the field.
All four had good springs.
Willingham and Ayers were named Andy Spiva Award winners as UT’s most improved defensive players this spring, while Paige and Stocker were Harvey Robinson honorees as the most improved Volunteers on offense.
Three of the four players contributed to the team last season — Paige redshirted — but all of them should have highly visible roles this season.
Ayers, who will be a fifth-year senior defensive end from Clio, S.C., led the Vols last season with 12 tackles for loss and four sacks. Chris Walker’s knee injury left them with just four healthy, scholarship defensive ends this spring, and Ayers and Wes Brown were the only two with any meaningful Saturday experience.
“Robert deserves that (award), because Robert has considerably improved his game in the last two years,” coach Phillip Fulmer said. “Last spring, you could see it coming ... and he took his game to another level this spring.”
The same could be said about Willingham, who has blossomed after starting by default last season as a junior college transfer. Defensive coordinator John Chavis said he thought the 6-foot-1, 203-pound Willingham was good enough to start at cornerback or safety. With Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley at safety, corner seems to be the better bet — though Dennis Rogan, Brent Vinson, Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines have also started and played well in a secondary that Chavis said could be the best he’s coached.
“We know we’ve got to compete for a spot, so we know we have to go out there and play hard every day,” Willingham said. “You really don’t want to lose that spot.
“It’s going to be hectic this summer, because we’ve got Brent coming back, Marsalous coming back, Antonio, and we’ve got all these recruits coming in, and we don’t know what they look like. It’s going to be a battle.”
Fulmer has praised Willingham several times to the team and the media this spring, and he didn’t stop Thursday.
“I don’t know if there’s a better example of fortitude and toughness and pride in a position that what DeAngelo Willingham has done,” Fulmer said. “He’s got his hands on a lot of balls. He’s not making any mental mistakes. He’s playing hard. He’s tackling well. He’s stripping the ball. He’s practicing and playing with an energy and an enthusiasm that’s really been great to watch and see.
“He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school or junior college, but we saw that he had potential, and he’s meeting every bit of that potential.”
Stocker wasn’t a world-class recruit, either, maybe because the 6-foot-6 tight end from Berea, Ky., committed to UT well before his senior season. After catching four passes for 19 yards and a touchdown last season as a redshirt freshman, Stocker became UT’s only healthy scholarship tight end this spring when Jeff Cottam broke his leg.
“As soon as Jeff got hurt, I kind of felt the weight come on my shoulders,” Stocker said. “I knew it was up to me to come in and be a playmaker at tight end.”
“I’m pretty proud. A lot of great players have gotten that award and then turn around and been starters in the fall. Hopefully I can continue that trend.”
That wouldn’t surprise Fulmer, who said Thursday that Stocker is “more than we thought he was. He’s a really good player, and he’s had a really great attitude. He’s been the only tight end, really. It was good to have him earn that award.”
First-year wide receivers coach Latrell Scott said Stocker was “one of the best receivers on this team.” Willingham is also a believer.
“He came in flying and stepped up real big after Cottam got hurt,” Willingham said of Stocker. “He’s a main go-to guy now. He can run routes, he’s physical, and he’s a big dude.
“He’s faster than he looks, too. You can’t just settle down and be like, ‘Oh, that’s just a tight end,’ because he’ll just run right past you.”
Stocker can’t run like Paige, though — not many can, at least not on UT’s roster. With serious speed and great height, the highly recruited Paige only redshirted last season because, as former receivers coach Trooper Taylor said, “you can fit him under the door.” He might have weighed 165 pounds last season, but the 6-3 Paige is now listed at 180 and hopes to be closer to 190 by the fall.
Fulmer and Scott have made multiple references to Paige’s physical play. After one particularly impressive day in the running game — and a spectacularly bad day catching the ball — Fulmer told Paige he was changing his position to “wide blocker.”
“But he had a good scrimmage (Saturday),” Fulmer added. “I think if he’ll just mature, he’ll be a dynamic player for us down the road.”
First-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said Paige is transforming from a “runner” into a “football player.”
“Ahmad knows how he’s going to get open now, instead of just trying to run by people,” Scott said. “God gave him the ability to run by people. Now, we want him to ... do things that his speed enhances.”
E-mail Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org