That's quite a statement when one considers how far former UT safety Gibril Wilson advanced between Year 1 and Year 2 on The Hill.
Despite a fine junior college career, Willingham was lost upon his arrival in Knoxville last August. When first-team cornerback Antonio Gaines suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2, Willingham assumed the void in Game 4 but played so poorly that he immediately surrendered the job to freshman Brent Vinson, who had switched from wide receiver to corner just two weeks earlier.
When the Vols lost another first-team corner, Marsalous Johnson, in Game 7, Willingham again was elevated to fill the void. This time he was up to the challenge, providing quality play over the season's final seven games.
Now, after a strong showing in spring practice and a terrific start in preseason camp, Willingham is challenging safeties Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley for recognition as the Vols' best defensive back.
The obvious question: What has enabled him to make so much progress in the past 12 months?
"The big difference this year is confidence," he says. "I've been working hard this offseason, watching film, watching technique and stuff like that."
In addition, having a full year in Tennessee's defensive scheme has enabled Willingham to be a much more knowledgeable and instinctive player in '08 than he was in '07.
"Learning the playbook makes you a lot more comfortable and relaxed," he says. "It's not like I'm out there all tense. I just go play and have fun."
Willingham was part of a UT secondary that was burned repeatedly last fall. That's why the Vols finished 11th among the 12 SEC teams in both pass defense and pass defense efficiency. Instead of deleting those awful moments from memory, Tennessee's DBs go back and relive them on a regular basis.
"We get together on our free time and go back as a unit to watch the old games," Willingham says. "We pick out big plays that happened, and we're not going to let that happen this year. We're going to work hard, communicate, run full-speed till everybody gets around the ball. If everybody gets around the ball it might lead to a turnover for us."
After taking their lumps as a bunch of novices in 2007, Tennessee's defensive backs have a much higher level of experience in '08. They have a much higher level of confidence, too.
"When we came back in the spring we had a goal – to be the best," Willingham notes. "We came out every day and worked hard. Even when we were at our worst tired, we worked, and it made us that much better.
"We work on the little things every day because we've got the talent. If we can get the little things, we won't have to worry about too much."