KNOXVILLE -- With a shiny bald head sitting atop an offensive guard's body, new University of Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus somewhat resembles Mr. Clean without the earring, or a professional wrestler without the goatee.

Star defensive back Eric Berry prefers the latter, obviously.

"I call him, 'Stone Cole Steve Ausmus,'" Berry said earlier this week, between fits of laughter. "He's a bad, bad dude."

But is the former UT track and field All-American good enough to help his overcome a season that was bad in the simplest definition of the word?

Head coach Lane Kiffin and associate head coach Ed Orgeron are optimistic because of their days at Southern California, where all three were helped build a perennial national powerhouse program.

UT's players are confident because of their familiarity with Ausmus's style. Their new strength and conditioning coach, like predecessor Johnny Long, is a protégé of former iconic Vols training coach John Stucky -- whose pupils have taken head jobs throughout major college football, including programs like Southern Cal, LSU and Georgia Tech.

Ausmus said he doesn't know the exact number of former Stucky assistants in charge of major programs, "but it's a lot.

"Obviously, there's a reason for that," Ausmus added.

And that's part of the reason UT has had three strength coaches in the past seven months, and it still paying for two of them. Kiffin cut ties with all of predecessor Phillip Fulmer's staff, including Long, and he hired highly regarded Mark Smith from South Carolina. But Smith's style didn't mesh with the Vols players and coaches, leading Smith and Kiffin to agree to part ways and opening the door for Ausmus.

Smith's program was vastly different from Long's, according to several within the program, and it drastically differed from former Stucky assistant Chris Carlisle's at Southern Cal.

Carlisle came to the West Coast from UT, where he assisted Stucky's back-to-back Southeastern Conference champions in 1997-98. And he brought then-Vols graduate assistant Ausmus with him.

When Orgeron took the head coaching job at Ole Miss, be hired Ausmus as his head strength coach.

Vols junior quarterback Nick Stephens originally committed to Ole Miss in high school, when he met Ausmus.

"It was really easy bonding with him, because I knew him already," said Stephens, who claims he has added 15 pounds of muscle the past few months. "He's getting along really great with all the guys, and it hasn't been a problem at all with guys buying into his system, and what he wants to do.

"We're all really excited about it."

Ausmus's UT connections were well known before Kiffin hired Smith, though. In hindsight, perhaps the biggest surprise was that Kiffin didn't hire the Knoxville-area native in the first place.

Regardless, UT still must pay Smith's salary until he finds another job.

Players aren't complaining about the situation, though.

"The change with Coach Smith was a lot different, because he had a much different style of strength training," senior tight end Jeff Cottam said. "But Johnny Long and Coach Ausmus have similar philosophies, so we're actually kind of used to what he's doing, and it seems to be working out a lot better for us."

Added senior defensive end Wes Brown: "This is more what we're used to, honestly, and I think that's a good thing for us."

Senior center Josh McNeil considered committing to Kiffin and Co. at Southern Cal out of high school -- when he was the nation's No. 1 center prospect, according to many recruiting services -- and he echoed praise for his new head coach's second strength hire.

"Coach Ausmus, I could tell the first day he got here that he is just full of energy and he is all about finishing," McNeil said. "I can hear him even if he's 100 yards down the field with that big, booming voice of his: 'Finish! Finish! Finish!'

"Every time I see him around the corner, I know that, hey, it's time to get to work. One-hundred percent, when he blows the whistle, it's time to go. And if you don't go, then you're just going to have to get out, because that's the way he is. And it's a good thing."

Ausmus hasn't put a premium on maximum lifting marks in his first few weeks, for two reasons: His late offseason start, and his general philosophy that speed and stamina can defeat pure strength.

"Speed kills. Speed win championships," McNeil said. "You look at a lot of the past national champions, what was the huge, determining factor they had? Speed. You can work on speed and help build speed by doing different types of drills, and different types of workouts, explosive runs and things like that. That's one thing Coach Ausmus is big on, especially with the finishing.

"Another thing is, he believes in training at 100 percent of your energy level 100 percent of the time. Whenever it's in the fourth quarter, and the other team is tired, but you're still going just as fast as you did on the first play, that's speed. That's going way faster than the other person. We're trying to become a team that is like that."

That speed, McNeil said, includes the offensive line.

"A tenth of a second in speed is the difference between getting that backside backer cut off, or the backside backer making the play," he said. "And that one play could be the biggest difference in the game. That's what speed does for you; it enables you to get in position to make great plays."

Berry, one of the Vols' fastest (and best) players, said "Stone Cold" will leave his mark on the program.

"He's pushing us, and we're pushing each other, and we're pushing ourselves," Berry said. "We honestly feel like we're putting ourselves in a position to shock everybody this season."