"Willingham's two strips show the strength that he has," head coach Phillip Fulmer said this week. "He's off to a good start. He's a work in progress but he's a willing worker."
Secondary coach Larry Slade was pleased with Willingham's play as a first-time starter. The Vol aide would've been even more pleased if Willingham had managed to reel in a second-half underthrow by SC's Blake Mitchell.
"Had he intercepted that ball he would've had three big plays," Slade said. "He had two caused fumbles that were really big in the game. I thought he played solid."
In going from Johnson to Willingham, Tennessee has gone from a 5-9, 180-pound cornerback to a 6-0, 195-pounder.
"He's a big guy," Slade noted. "On that strip he just flat out took it from the guy. He brings some of that (physicality) to the table."
Willingham and fellow starting corner Brent Vinson (6-2, 190) have the kind of size that comes in handy against the big receivers Tennessee must face in the coming weeks – Arkansas's Marcus Monk (6-6, 220), Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett (6-1, 200) and Kentucky's Keenan Burton (6-2, 195).
"It's always nice to have those big guys," Slade said, "but they have to be athletic enough to cover. That's what the Brent Vinsons and those guys have. Not only are they taller guys, but they're athletic, as well.
After just one start, Willingham leads the Vols in fumbles forced with two. That makes him a key figure in a Tennessee defense that has recorded just 13 takeaways all season.
"We talked about it the whole week – getting turnovers and not giving away easy plays," he said, adding: "I think I played pretty well, better than I did previously. I felt more comfortable and relaxed."
South Carolina overcame a 21-0 halftime deficit last weekend by nickel-and-diming the Vols to death with an assortment of short throws. Tennessee fans were annoyed by this development, and so was Willingham.
"It's real frustrating but you've got to remember to play your coverage," he said. "If you try to jump the little route, that can get you beat."
Willingham said his biggest adjustment as a Vol has been adapting to the speed of the game, noting: "It's a lot faster here than it was in JC."
Now that he has one start under his belt, he expects to be much more help to his fellow defensive backs this weekend.
"I should be a lot better," he said. "It'll feel more relaxed, and we'll have more fun because we did it together and came away with a big win."