Already, Tyson Alualu can see the difference.
Not that he has yet had a chance to test what he has seen in a real game, or even in the preseason. The Jaguars haven't yet even had a full-pad practice in 2011 training camp, but even without that, the second-year defensive tackle said he can see a difference.
He's a little more comfortable, a little more aware.
The early days of camp are a lot less confusing and overwhelming, and Alualu can't help but think that all of that has a very real chance to translate into what he wants from the coming season.
That's to improve, and to take another step toward the production people expect from him – and more importantly, that he expects from himself.
"I hear that a lot, that there's a big difference going into the second year," Alualu said Sunday following a morning practice at Jaguars 2011 training camp. "There should be a big leap. That's definitely what I'm expecting, just to have a better year than I did.
"I'm setting higher expectations for myself, and I want to reach it."
Not that Alualu's unaccustomed to expectations. The Jaguars selected him No. 10 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, and while because of Alualu's relative unknown status the selection surprised many observers, he quickly and consistently showed he was worthy of the selection.
Alualu not only started 16 games, he played through nagging knee issues and finished the season with 3.5 sacks.
"I think it was a good learning experience, and a humbling experience," Alualu said. "I wasn't used to playing through injuries when I hurt my knees, or the adversity of playing through that."
Alualu had more going on last season than playing through hurts. The season also was an extended process of learning a 4-3 defense after playing 3-4 defensive end at California-Berkeley. New techniques of a 4-3 undertackle had to be learned individually, as well as new concepts of a new overall scheme.
"I know I'm here to cause havoc in the backfield, and just get off," Alualu said. "In college, I was in a read defense. I feel a lot more comfortable now, knowing my job and getting it done."
By the end of the season, Alualu said despite the health issues he was thinking less on the field, and playing more naturally.
"It definitely progressed as the season went on," he said. "In the middle (of the season), I started to feel more comfortable. Toward the end, I had to change things up, but it definitely got better, especially in the games – mentally knowing what I had to get done."
As he learned, and as he improved, those around the Jaguars said Alualu's approach won the respect of players young and old. He's not a vocal leader, necessarily, but those around the Jaguars will tell you his demeanor is ideal for a young player selected early in the draft, his work ethic and approach setting a tone that compels others to follow.
His was a solid rookie season and showed signs of better things, but Alualu knows, too, that for a No. 10 overall selection, potential must continue to become reality. For the Jaguars to emerge as one of the NFL's better teams – and a perennial contender with a solid defense – he must continued to develop into an elite player for whom opponents must game plan.
Alualu said that for him, the timing of the NFL lockout was hardly ideal. He would have preferred to be working with coaches in a structured off-season environment. Instead, he spent extensive time in Jacksonville working as much as possible with teammates.
"I just knew I had to be up here with the D-line, especially with a great leader like (Jaguars veteran defensive end) Aaron Kampman," Alualu said. "He's one of the guys I look up to, and I try to take the approach of how he's professional. I try to emulate what he is both on and off the field. I knew the work I needed to put in for me to play at this level."
Alualu said he observed Kampman, a 10-year veteran, extensively last season. And yes, he said, there were times while trying to endure a 16-game rookie season that the idea of a decade-long career seemed well out of reach. He, too, said he owes a great deal to former Jaguars guard Vince Manuwai for helping him adapt as a rookie.
Alualu long had looked up to Manuwai, having grown up several years behind the guard in the same Honolulu, Hawaii, neighborhood. Manuwai immediately reached out to Alualu upon the latter's arrival in Jacksonville, something Alualu said helped him last season immeasurably.
"He kind of took me under his wing," Alualu said. "He gave me the heads up on what to expect – things to do, and what to stay away from. He was a big help while he was here."
Alualu said Manuwai will be missed, and that he believes "God still has big plans for him."
As far as Alualu's plans for this season, and for training camp, he said they're simple: to turn the hard-earned experience of his rookie season into the second-year improvement others have made before him – and that the Jaguars very much need to see from him.
"You definitely see a whole different perspective (in Year 2)," Alualu said. "I remember coming in (last season) and having so much on my mind, trying to do the right thing – pleasing the coach – but I'm a lot more comfortable and confident coming in. I understand what's expected and what I need to do."