"I'm definitely more confident about myself, about my play," he said this week. "When I watch film, I see a more mature player who has developed. There are a few more things I need to work on but, other than that, I'm looking pretty good out there."
Mahelona is the cornerstone of a Vol defense that should be outstanding this fall. And that defense is the cornerstone of a Vol team that is being projected to contend for the national title. As a result, Mahelona senses a different mood on the team than it had a year ago.
"We're a lot more confident," he said. "Obviously, with a higher ranking we have a better chance of getting into the BCS and hopefully playing in Pasadena (Rose Bowl). You can definitely see we're a mature team, with a lot of seniors, a lot of captains stepping up. That's an upside of our team from last year."
Tennessee's defensive line recently was ranked No. 3 nationally by the folks at collegefootballnews.com. Mahelona called it "a good honor" and said he's looking forward to "showing everybody we are 3, 2 or 1."
Originally from Hawaii, Mahelona recently revealed that he's a canoe enthusiast. Canoe-racing is a popular sport back at the Island Paradise, and Jesse was quite a competitor on the water … just as he is on the gridiron.
"You've got a six-man crew," he explained, "and I was number 3 and 4, because that's where the power is."
His passion for canoeing stems in part from the fact it is an activity that relies heavily on teamwork. All of the rowers must function as one to achieve top speed.
"There's a lot of rhythm," Mahelona said. "It's like one heartbeat."
Of course, good football programs rely so heavily on teamwork that it's as if they, too, are functioning as one heartbeat.
"Definitely," Mahelona said. "I had that talk with the defense the other day -- one heartbeat. You've got 11 guys running around and playing but you're only as strong as your weakest link. I believe we can be a special team if we come together and have one heartbeat."
So why does he believe the 2005 Vols can be special?
"Maturity," he said. "We're much more mature, especially about the rankings ... knowing we are special and we have talent all over."
There's that word again.