The light-hearted tone of the Chuck Smith era has given way to the business-like approach of the Lance Thompson era.
"It's a lot different," senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said recently. "It's not as fun but it's cool. We're working, getting a lot better, more attentive. Last year we played a lot with Chuck because he was young and a first-year coach. Lance isn't having that. He's good for us. He keeps us grounded."
Thompson comes by his no-nonsense approach honestly. Prior to joining the Vol staff two years ago, he served two tours of duty under Nick Saban - 2002-03 at LSU and 2007-08 at Alabama.
"I don't holler and all of that stuff," Thompson said recently. "I just tell 'em what they did right, tell 'em what they did wrong, then tell 'em to do it again."
For the second year in a row Tennessee lacks size and depth on the defensive line. Still, the linemen are optimistic. They believe the power they've added under first-year strength coach Ron McKeefery, the technical know-how they've added under Thompson and the maturity they've added since last spring will serve them well in 2011.
"We'll probably be a lot more physical," Jackson said. "We had a lot of young kids last year, so we'll be a lot more technically sound. We'll be able to do a lot more stuff. We'll have a lot more fun ... be able to go out there and actually know what we're doing instead of just running around like chickens with our heads cut off."
That's especially true of Malik Jackson. He spent the first month of 2010 at defensive end, then switched to tackle and started the final eight games. Although still undersized at 6-5 and 270 pounds, he's much more comfortable "inside" after getting quality experience at tackle last fall.
"I'm a lot better," he said. "Coming into the SEC, with the big guys and my first time playing tackle, I had to adjust quicker or get my ass whupped a lot.
"I'm just happy I adjusted. I had great coaches. Coach Justin (coordinator Justin Wilcox) put me in some good schemes so I wouldn't have to get in that (mismatched) situation. I feel a lot more comfortable, and I'm having a lot more fun."
Jackson believes the 2011 line will be better than the 2010. One reason is the emergence of Daniel Hood at nose tackle. His 6-4, 300-pound frame adds some much-needed heft to Tennessee's undersized front four.
"It's tremendous," Jackson said. "If you watch him on film he's just destroying the centers, destroying the tackles when he's at the 3 (gap). He's good to have. He brings some depth and width to the D-line with his thickness. He's just surprised me a lot."
That's understandable. Hood was a little-used offensive lineman last fall who has blossomed since gaining weight and moving to defense this spring.
"I remember Daniel Hood talking to me about it, wanting me to ask Coach about helping him move," Jackson recalled. "I was pretty skeptical but he sounded really passionate about it. I'm glad we did. He's better than I thought he would be."