KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee volleyball team wrapped up its first full week of preseason practices Friday at Thompson-Boling Arena, pulling itself just 14 days shy of the season opener against Tennessee Tech on Aug. 29 at the Appalachian Invitational. The seven-day stretch has been jam-packed with twice-a-day workouts, photo and video shoots, team activities and retreats. But through all the hustle and bustle, longtime head coach Rob Patrick is seeing the beginnings of an improved depth in his still youthful roster.
"We don't know who is going to be playing yet, but we do know that we have a tremendous amount of depth," said Patrick, entering his 18th season at the helm of the Lady Vols. "Now we can absorb somebody not playing well or if somebody got injured. Last year we couldn't absorb that because we just didn't have the depth necessary to make the appropriate changes."
And while a greater depth lends itself to more roster flexibility, it can also muddle the process of determining a concise depth chart. Still, Patrick says that problem is a welcome one.
"Right now, they're making it real hard because there are a lot of people who are good volleyball players vying for limited spots. It's making it interesting for [the coaching staff], but in a good way because it pushes the intensity of practice and the individual focus of the players."
Driving the renewed depth of the 2014 Tennessee roster are 12 underclassmen that comprise two-thirds of the team sheet. Six true freshman and six sophomores are in line to appear for the Orange & White this season, joining a contingent of three juniors and a lone senior on the squad. Despite the apparent youth, Patrick acknowledges that the learning curve hasn't been too steep.
"We have so many new players so we just wanted to get a feel for who they are when we started the preseason. But our newcomers are coming in with a pretty high IQ level and some really good volleyball skills. I'm also very excited about where our returners are -- they've really improved.
"So now we've been getting them organized, installing our offenses and installing our defenses. We've changed some things so there are some things new even for our returners. But I'm really happy with the retention rate of our newcomers picking up our offenses and defenses and the way they've learned our calls."
Two such newcomers tasked with adjusting to the collegiate level at a heightened rate are true freshmen Claudia Coco and Kelsey Bawcombe. The duo admit that the transition hasn't been easy, but they are encouraged at the progress the team has made so early in the preseason.
"The speed of the game has been a bit of an adjustment from the high school and club level," said Coco, a DS from Johns Creek, Georgia. "It's a whole different level here, but it's a great level to be at and I'm loving it."
Added Bawcombe, "It can be difficult learning all the intricacies of our different defenses and learning where to be in different situations. The serve-receive technique has also been a bit of a change. But I'm impressed with how organized practice has been, especially with how young we are and with how much we've had to learn."
#TNVB ON THE SEC NETWORK
Alongside UT's football and soccer program's, Tennessee volleyball took part in Thursday's launch party of the new SEC Network at Smokey's Grill -- the new student-athlete dining facility in the Anderson Training Center.
Speaking on the impact the network will have on his own program, Patrick believes that it can only help further his recruiting reach while bringing greater exposure to the high-level of volleyball throughout the conference.
"I'm very blessed to be coaching at the University of Tennessee and in the SEC. I truly believe this is the best conference in the country for athletics. It's really neat to be involved in that sort of competitiveness. And now, everyone in the country is going to be able to observe that and in every sport. We recruit nationally and now we have a viable medium that allows our recruiting to make the trip shorter for our recruits coming from the West Coast. It used to be a plane flight, but now you can turn your TV on and watch a very well presented volleyball match."
UT Volleyball will play its first scrimmage of the fall on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena. The event is open to the public and will give UT fans their first look at the 2014 Lady Vol team, which begins its season on Aug. 29.