Introducing No. 20 in Tennessee’s class of 2007, cornerback DeAngelo Willingham:
Jonathan Wade. Drafted. Antwan Stewart, graduated. Roshaun Fellows, ousted. Tennessee’s three best cornerbacks from last season, gone, gone, gone. The secondary decimated. So what do we do? We go out and sign an A+ class of cornerbacks that includes not one, but two junior college players, one of which is DeAngelo Willingham.
Willingham, a native of Calhoun, South Carolina, earned the label "lock-down corner" after making first-team all-region as a sophomore in high school. As a senior, the highly touted prospect was teed up to sign with Georgia but was banished to the desert after failing to qualify academically. And when I say banished to the desert, I mean that literally. Willingham enrolled at the College of the Desert (somebody get that school a publicist, quick!) in Desert Springs, California, where he wandered for the next two years.
Willingham got his first glimpse of the promised land when Tennessee assistant coach Greg Adkins attended one of his games in September, 2006. Fellow South Carolina native Jonathan Hefney hosted Willingham on his official visit on December 8th, and Willingham committed the next day.
Tennessee appeared to be the total package for Willingham: the opportunity to play early and possibly even earn a spot as a starter this year, great facilities, an opportunity to get a great education, a history of sending defensive backs to the pros, and it was close enough to home that his family could actually see him play. Most of all, Willingham just felt at home:
After giving his word to Tennessee, he called it quits with both Nebraska, which had extended an offer, and California, which had not but was expected to. Other schools that had also shown some interest, including Oregon, Florida, and Auburn, apparently got the message and stopped recruiting him.
In high school, Willingham was a three-year starter at wide receiver, defensive back, kick returner, and punt returner, and he made All-Region and All-District all three years. As a senior, he made All-State. He also started at guard on the basketball team for three years and led the team to three straight regional championships. I could locate no high school stats.
Ditto junior college. College of the Desert is as stats-deprived as it must be foliage-deprived. Willingham doesn’t know how many tackles he had while playing in the desert, but he did have three interceptions as a freshman and five as a sophomore. He also forced one fumble, recovered one fumble, and blocked a field goal and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown. Perhaps his lack of stats (interceptions excepted) was due to the fact that he was a great player on a bad team (1-9, yikes!) and opponents schemed around him. Willingham said that his defense spent most of the time in the red zone. Despite his team's woes, Willingham was designated an All-Foothill Conference player as a both a freshman and a senior.
But still . . .
Willingham is a big deal, even if his pile of stats and honors is a bit malnourished. He has linebacker size (6’1" and 200 pounds) and sprinter speed (4.35). That, my friends, is indeed a rare combination. Perhaps that is why Rivals gives him four stars and ranks him as the 38th best junior college prospect. Perhaps that is why Scout also gives him four stars and why PrepStar had him pegged as an All-American in 2004.
Or maybe it’s because he has a 37 inch vertical. Or because he bench presses 350 pounds. Or because he’s a long-armed, physical cornerback who excels at man-to-man coverage, zone coverage, and run support, who takes tackling seriously, and who’s spent the last two years under pressure in the red zone.
Whatever it is, Willingham will have an opportunity, beginning this season, to use his size and speed to negate opponents’ best receivers. He’ll have three years to play two, but don’t be surprised if he comes in and burns those two years sequentially starting this fall. Coach Fulmer has often said that Tennessee does not sign junior college players unless they expect them to start or significantly contribute. With three of four starters from last year’s secondary gone, expect to see Willingham’s size, speed, and strength on display early and often in 2007.
Rocky Top Talk Mnemonic
'Backer size and sprinter speed
DeAngelo Willingham, welcome to Tennessee.