For North Carolina defensive tackle Aleric Mullins, Saturday night's season opener will be his first opportunity to try out his slimmer, more mobile frame.
After playing at well over 300 pounds throughout the 2008 season, Mullins has dropped considerable mass and is noticeably slimmer. He says he'll be playing at approximately 295 pounds this season.
"I dropped a lot of body fat, and it's good. It's going to help me out there on Saturdays," said Mullins. "Last year I kind of struggled with my weight, you know, and being able to come in this year with losing a lot of body fat, it's going to show up on the field."
"We've worked hard this summer, getting in a lot better shape, being able to extend plays," he added. "It's going to be fun this year. I can't wait. It's gone real good, man. We've come a long ways. We've worked hard. Now it's time to play ball."
Mullins made four starts back in 2007, his first North Carolina season, and a year ago he played in all 13 games for the Tar Heels, making 12 tackles, two tackles for losses, two fumble recoveries, and one sack.
As one of the regulars in North Carolina's four and sometimes five-deep rotation of defensive tackles, Mullins sees it as a major benefit that the Tar Heels have so many experienced returning players in the trenches.
"It's real good having the two-deep back," he said. "It makes you go out there and play with a lot more confidence. Like you said, a lot of guys have got experience, and so everybody knows what to do now, so all we can do is go out there and play fast now."
"It's a big benefit, because when you rotate a lot of guys, a lot of people stay fresh, so in the fourth quarter when you're fresh you can run all day," he added. "We're deep, and we've got experience. It's good because there's no drop-off. If one goes down somebody can go out in and play that same amount."
For Mullins and the other UNC veterans, one of the biggest keys to the 2009 season is finishing out games.
After missing opportunities to hold late-game leads and get huge road wins at Virginia and Maryland, the Tar Heels also gave up a fourth quarter lead to West Virginia that ultimately cost them the Meineke Car Bowl last December.
"We're just going to try to finish," Mullins said. "The last three or four ball games we didn't finish. This year we want to focus on finishing ball games, putting teams away. That's going to be our main focus this year."
Mullins and the rest of the UNC defensive linemen earned praise throughout training camp from the Tar Heel coaches for not only helping set the tempo in practice, but also in being vocal leaders.
"That (setting the tempo) is kind of the mentality we've been taking on, being that we are the deepest position and we've got the most experience on the defense," Mullins said. "We kind of took it into our own hands. The same tempo we set in practice is going to be set during the game, so the game will be easier and make practice a little harder."
"I feel like one of the key things we haven't had (this summer) is low morale in practice," he added. "Everybody has come out and they've wanted to practice, so that's good when you've got a group of guys who want to go out and work hard."
Compared to past years, this summer hasn't nearly been as much about learning what's going on for Mullins.
With a full grasp of the defensive schemes, it's been about getting to the football and swarming ball carriers, and that's what he hopes opposing teams see out of the entire Tar Heel defense in upcoming games.
"It's been a tremendous step for me (this year)," he said. "It's not a lot of thinking about there. It's more just getting to the ball and playing fast. We want guys watching film on us seeing 11 guys going to the ball every time. When teams see that, it's going to be intimidating, so I can't wait."
Along with knowing more of what's going on defensively, another thing that helped ease Mullins' mind this summer is knowing that he's secured his fourth year of eligibility.
After being declared academically unable to play during the 2006 season but technically burning his 'freshman' year that fall, Mullins was required to complete certain academic guidelines in order to gain back a fourth year of eligibility.
The good news is that Mullins says he has met those requirements, which means that he has two years of playing eligibility remaining---the upcoming 2009 season and then the 2010 season---which makes him a junior.
"Yes, I handled my situation academically so I don't have to worry about it anymore," he said. "It's pretty good. That weight is off my shoulders, so now I can just focus on football. It's good."