Most improved (defense)

Two seniors with the skills to bolster a Tennessee pass defense that was porous in 2007 share the award as the Vols' Most Improved Defensive Player of spring practice.

The Vols ranked 11th among 12 Southeastern Conference teams last fall in both pass defense and pass-efficiency defense. One reason was the line's inability to rush opposing quarterbacks. Another reason was the secondary's inability to stick with opposing receivers.

The recipients of this spring's Most Improved Defensive Player awards – Robert Ayers and DeAngelo Willingham – may help solve both problems in 2008.

Ayers was a pass-rushing machine in Tennessee's three spring scrimmages. He was credited with two sacks last Saturday but would've had at least twice that many had he not pulled up a couple of times out of pity for sitting-duck quarterbacks.

A 6-3, 270-pounder, Ayers' spring success was aided considerably by the play of 6-4, 256-pound junior Wes Brown on the other flank.

"Wes Brown and Robert Ayers both had excellent springs, and I'm really excited about what they were able to get done," Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "These two guys have played a lot of football for Tennessee, and they played as well this spring practice as we anticipated them playing."

Willingham's contribution this spring might have been even greater than Ayers'. After starting the last seven games of 2007 at cornerback, Willingham accepted a move to safety. The 6-0, 200-pounder quickly proved just as adept at his new position as he was at his old one.

"A lot of guys have made progress," Chavis said, "but the one that sticks out the most is Willingham … what he's done for himself and this football team this spring.

"He's gotten himself ready to play and be a starter at either corner or safety for us. That's big for us. His flexibility – being able to play either – has made him more valuable to us. I think he's had a really, really good spring."

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