A year ago, the Tennessee volleyball team was coming off a conference championship and returning an athletic, experienced roster with championship aspirations extending beyond just the SEC.

Somewhere along the way, momentum was derailed and the Lady Vols finished their 2012 campaign with twice as many losses as 2011, despite playing with essentially the same roster.

There was no repeat as SEC Champions and no run through the NCAA tournament.

The aftermath featured the departure of the team's top seven offensive performers – four of them transferring – and the others graduating.

Despite the mass exodus and reality of an inexperienced 2013 roster, UT coach Rob Patrick is plenty optimistic about the cohesion of his 17th group of Lady Vols.

"Team chemistry has been as good or better than we've had in a long time," Patrick said while seated in his office Tuesday. "And it's because all of our players just look forward."

On the calendar, what lies ahead for UT is a seven game road stretch to open the season.

Philosophically though, a revamp in playing styles is ahead for the Lady Vols, who no longer have high-flying players like Kelsey Robinson or Tiffany Baker to carry the load offensively. Both transferred after the 2012 season ended in a first round NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan.

"What our team is going to really have to rely on is our defense to help us win matches," Patrick said. "We're going to have to play very hard, we're going to have to prolong rallies by digging one extra ball. That's going to be a huge, huge deal."

Senior defensive specialist Ellen Mullins returns to the libero position for UT, a critical spot within the defense. She, Nikki Brice and Shealyn Kolosky are the only players remaining from UT's 2011 SEC title run.

Mullins – the 2012 team leader in digs – played within the Team USA volleyball system over the summer.

"Not only is she a really good, experienced player, but she's now a really confident, experienced player that we have," Patrick said. "I believe she's the best libero in our conference."

While Mullins' level of experience is not the norm on UT's roster, Whitney Heeres, a senior transfer from Ball State, has noticed a drive within the team as it prepares for its season opener on Friday against Morehead State.

"Everyone has bought in," Heeres said. "People are working really hard in practice and just to see the improvement that we've made know that we've got so much more improvement we can do, it's exciting."

On the offensive end, freshman outside hitter Jamie Lea is expected to pick up some of the slack for the Lady Vols.

Patrick praised the diversity of the 6-foot-2 freshman who graduated high school early to be with the team in the spring.

"Jamie Lea is actually a really good defensive player, even though she's going to be known for her hitting, and that's where all the accolades usually go to," he explained.

However, Lea is not the only freshman that Patrick is counting on in 2013. The UT coach is hopeful that "Rob's Mob" – the volleyball student section – will show up big in support of the Lady Vols during the year.

UT's first home match is Sept. 12 vs. Austin Peay at 7 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena.

The team then plays at home again six more times, capping the stand with the opening match of SEC play on Sept. 29 against South Carolina.

"It gets loud and fun," Patrick said. "We really appreciate when the students come out and support us, and that's something that has really helped us be successful, especially at home."

Admission to volleyball matches is free for students.