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Coach Derek Dooley watches his players take the field for a skirmish in April.

KNOXVILLE - The picture is straight out of a late-night weight-loss infomercial.

There's the 250-pound freshman version of A.J. Johnson on one side and the new-and-improved Tennessee linebacker after a year in the weight room posing on the other.

"I was shocked when I saw it," the chiseled, 240-pound sophomore said Thursday evening.

Johnson posted the then-and-now image on his Twitter page a couple of weeks ago, and his physical change is a symbol of sorts of the change UT's entire team believes it has experienced since last season.

The seven Southeastern Conference losses, the blowouts and the embarrassment of losing to Kentucky all are distant memories as the Volunteers open preseason practice today. Coach Derek Dooley continues to insist, as he has all offseason, that his team is deeper, more experienced and more talented than it has been in his three seasons. The players continue to claim the chemistry, leadership and unity have greatly improved.

Both components were missing a season ago, and the latter intangible has been an area the Vols have targeted all offseason.

"I've never been around a good football team, a championship football team, that always didn't say, 'You know what? We had great team chemistry, we had great leadership and we had tremendous unity,'" Dooley said.

"I think that, combined with the fact that it was pretty apparent we didn't have what we needed last year from that standpoint, was probably why there was such a bigger emphasis on it."

Dooley acknowledged that he's had only two other teams for comparisons. And unity always is a work in progress that is tested throughout the season in multiple ways.

"You don't really know until the end of the year," the coach said. "You don't have it day one, it doesn't matter what team you have. Every year's a new year.

"At the end of the year, you look back and say, 'That was a pretty close team,' or 'We didn't do as good a job as we needed to. What do we need to do to fix it?'"

For Johnson, finishing second on the team in tackles and earning Freshman All-American honors needed fixing. After eating his way from 238 pounds to 250, the 6-foot-2 Georgia native focused on trimming weight and toning up, which helped his speed and agility. The Vols will need Johnson to star alongside invaluable senior Herman Lathers in the middle of the transitioning 3-4 defense.

"I'm going to keep working hard and trying to push myself to get even better," Johnson said. "I feel like my footwork got a little better. I'm a little faster."

Every UT player did a similar before-and-after picture to show the physical growth. Seeing the results of the hard work is rewarding, Johnson said. It's also a motivator.

"The commitment is just something inside me that's going to make me drive," he said. "When you're in high school and you're working out, you don't have a picture. The picture showed the work put in."

The Vols hope their collective then-and-now picture shows a similar transformation from 2011's debacle.