Juco answers SOS

After watching Tennessee surrender 247 passing yards and two passing touchdowns in a season-opening 45-31 loss to Cal, Vol secondary coach Larry Slade probably figured things couldn't get much worse.

He was wrong. Senior cornerback Antonio Gaines suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2.

After watching Tennessee surrender 299 passing yards and two passing touchdowns in a 59-20 Game 3 loss to Florida, Slade figured things surely couldn't get much worse.

He was wrong again. Tennessee was torched for 363 passing yards and three passing touchdowns in a 41-17 Game 7 loss to Alabama.

With Tennessee ranking dead last among the 12 SEC teams in pass defense, Slade had to believe things couldn't get any worse.

He was wrong yet again. A knee injury first-team cornerback Marsalous Johnson had suffered during the course of the Alabama game proved to be season-ending.

Clearly, there seems to be a dark cloud following Slade this season. Still, he sees the occasional ray of sunshine. One of them is junior college transfer DeAngelo Willingham. Forced into a first-team cornerback role by Johnson's injury, the 6-0, 195-pounder has been a most pleasant surprise to date.

Willingham registered 10 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup vs. South Carolina in his first collegiate start. He played sparingly in a Game 9 beatdown of Louisiana-Lafayette, then recorded 3 tackles in Game 10 vs. Arkansas and 4 stops in Game 11 vs. Vanderbilt.

Willingham is physical enough to excel in run support. He is strong enough to play bump-and-run against big receivers. He is quick enough to cover speedsters. The most important thing he has brought to the secondary is none of the above, however.

"He's added stability," Slade said. "That's the thing that's been good the last three or four weeks. We've been able to go out there with the same group. He's been solid – not always great, but solid."

Tennessee's defensive coordinator offered similar thoughts.

"He's been really steady," John Chavis said. "He's been an excellent player for us. He's come on. He's not real flashy but he gets the job done. He's been very, very steady for us."

Willingham's steadying influence may stem from the fact he is 20 years old and has two years of juco ball behind him. Still, he is a novice in terms of the Vol scheme.

"I think he feels subject to the same things that those freshmen are subject to the first time out there," Slade said.

Fortunately for Tennessee, Willingham and freshmen Eric Berry, Brent Vinson and Dennis Rogan are learning at a fast pace.

"The thing they do is they've become students of the game," Slade said. "That's where they've grown up. You find those guys in the video room. You find them doing extra work after practice, constantly bugging us about 'How do I do this? How can I get better at this?' When they do that you can see the improvement."

Willingham and the other rookie defensive backs are due quite a test this weekend. They must face Kentucky's Andre Woodson, who leads the SEC with an average of 265.5 passing yards per game.

"I'm real impressed with his arm and the way he sees the field," Willingham said.

Although he is a dropback passer, Woodson is no statue. He's mobile enough to escape the rush and occasionally scramble for yardage.

"He can get outside the pocket and make plays happen," Willingham noted. "That's where most people break down. But if we stay in coverage and keep pursuing the quarterback, we're going to be fine."

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