"It's cool," he said, grinning broadly. "I'm trying to learn as much as I can to make the team better. Like I told the coaches: I'm going to do anything to help the team.'"
Moving to safety – at least on a part-time basis – should help the team plenty. The Vols' depth behind projected starters Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley at the safety positions basically was non-existent entering spring practice.
At 6-0 and 200 pounds, Willingham looks like a safety. He hits like a safety, too. Despite starting just half of last season's 14 games, he ranked eighth among all Vol defenders in tackles (38) and tied for the team lead in fumbles forced (2).
Originally from Saint Mathews, S.C., he recorded eight interceptions in two years as a junior college cornerback at College of the Desert in California. When he arrived in Knoxville, however, he found the mental workload a lot heavier than he was accustomed to at the juco level.
"It's real hard. You can't explain how hard it was," he said, shaking his head at the recollection. "I thought I knew the playbook but when you have to learn all the techniques and the little things, it's a lot harder than you think."
Ready or not, Willingham was thrust into the Vols' starting lineup last October when first-team corner Marsalous Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 7. Willingham gradually developed into a solid player. In addition to the two fumbles forced, he registered a tackle for loss, two fumble recoveries and three pass breakups.
In an effort to get its four best defensive backs on the field in 2008, Tennessee flip-flopped Willingham and Dennis Rogan (who played safety at 5-10, 185 pounds last fall). Although safety is a little more complex than corner, a year's experience in the Vol system has helped Willingham adapt quickly to his new position.
"Playing safety, you know where your help is," he said. "You can relax more and feel comfortable. It's like a second home. You're just out there free-styling really. You just play your little techniques and break on the ball."
Willingham was part of a secondary that was the weakest link for the 2007 Vol defense. Now he's part of a secondary that is the strongest link for the '08 defense. The defensive backs have been very impressive this spring.
"Oh, we're playing real good," he said. "Everybody's communicating – the linebackers and the D-line – so we can be on the same page. When they're rushing, that makes it easier on us to make big plays.
"When we work together it helps everybody out."