A junior college transfer from College of the Desert in California, the 6-0, 195-pounder plans to be in the starting lineup when Tennessee visits the Cal Golden Bears Sept. 1 in the season opener. He has the speed and the confidence to thrive in a Vol defensive scheme that puts tremendous pressure on its cornerbacks.
"Oh, yeah. There's no problem there," he said. "I like that. Being on an island is pretty much a cornerback's job, so I'm looking forward to that. I like that type of defense anyway."
Tennessee has lost its top four cornerbacks in the past 12 months. One of last fall's starters, Inquoris Johnson, suffered a career-ending injury in Game 2 of 2006. Jonathan Wade and converted safety Antwan Stewart exhausted their eligibility in Game 13. Then Roshaun Fellows, who started 12 games in 2004 and 2005, was dismissed from the team last spring.
With Tennessee in dire need of help at cornerback, Willingham figured Knoxville would be a good place for a corner looking for immediate playing time.
"Yeah," he said, "and in the recruiting process they told me the truth most of the time."
A pair of 5-9, 180-pounders – senior Antonio Gaines and sophomore Marsalous Johnson – finished spring practice as the No. 1 corners. Neither has started a college game. Fellows' dismissal leaves mid-term freshman enrollee Art Evans as the only backup listed on the preseason depth chart.
Clearly, Willingham has a great opportunity to immediately join the playing rotation, if not the starting lineup.
"I'm looking forward to competing with the other guys," he said. "We're going to push each other and work hard. Hopefully, I can earn a starting spot."
Although he is an outsider from the junior college ranks, Willingham says Tennessee's veteran defensive backs are making him feel welcome.
"Everybody's together as a group," he said. "We appreciate each other and help each other. We're all working together."
Secondary coach Larry Slade will give Willingham a long look during preseason drills. What must the player do to earn the coach's trust?
"Just play my game," Willingham replied. "Playing aggressive, competing and working hard every day."
A hardnosed defender, Willingham recorded eight interceptions, a fumble forced and a fumble recovery in two years at College of the Desert.
"I'm more of an aggressive corner," he said. "I can come up on run support and I also like to cover and get the big interception, stuff like that."
A versatile athlete, Willingham was a three-year starter in basketball at Calhoun (S.C.) High School. He played some wide receiver on offense but has played exclusively at cornerback on defense.
"I never played safety, ever," he said. "Corner is just something I'm comfortable with. I don't have a problem with safety, though, if they want me to play there. I'll just learn and keep going ... do whatever's best for the team."
Willingham's first two months at Tennessee have been eventful. In addition to summer workouts, he has been participating in summer school classes. Both activities were a little more intense than he expected.
"I've been getting used to the speed of the game and the classwork and stuff," he said. "They take it (academics) a little more serious at this level."