Its the most physical team Ive ever worked with, of course, but that Ive ever been a part of as an athlete, back to my playing days. —Shawn Olmstead

PROVO — Big, smashing hits around the net should come in abundance for the preseason No. 1-ranked BYU men's volleyball team in 2016. But it's the little things that could earn it the ultimate goal of a national championship.

Any observer passing by a Cougar practice will likely be awed by the team's frontline physicality. Most BYU teams are defined by a few notable big hitters, but this year's version has an abundance of them.

Whether it be sophomores Brendan Sander (6-foot-4), Tim Dobbert (6-10) and Ben Patch (6-9) or junior Jake Langlois (6-10) along with seniors such as Matt Underwood (6-6) and Carson Heninger (6-5), the outside hitter and opposite positions look potent with a vast array of experience and athleticism.

The middle blocker position isn't much different with senior Michael Hatch (6-8) leading a crew that includes sophomore Price Jarman (6-9) and junior Joseph Grosh (6-7.)

“It’s the most physical team I’ve ever worked with, of course, but that I’ve ever been a part of as an athlete, back to my playing days,” said BYU's first-year coach, Shawn Olmstead, who was part of BYU's 2001 and 2004 national championship teams as a player. “These guys are a lot more physical than we ever were.”

At times, Olmstead admits it's hard to not just sit back and watch his guys do what they do without much feedback.

“Sometimes you just get caught up in watching these guys,” Olmstead said. “They’re fun to watch and they work hard on their own, so I don’t really need to do much.”

Indeed, the bulk of BYU's roster includes a bevy of returning frontline experience along with the addition of Patch, who recently returned from missionary service for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after starring as a true freshman.

That collective experience has the players confident and excited as they prep for their first match of the year at home on Friday against defending national champion Loyola-Chicago.

“Last year was kind of a rebuilding year — trying to figure things out, but now I think we have it figured out and we’re building upon it,” Hatch said. “We have a lot of guys who can play, so it should be great.”

As for the addition of Patch, Hatch has noted a lot of the good things Patch had before his mission mixed with some positive improvements.

“He’s the same great athlete, but he’s a lot better mentally now,” Hatch said of Patch. “I don’t want to say he was a head-case before his mission, but he’s definitely improved on that part of his game and so he should be that much better because of it.”

Patch largely agrees with Hatch's assessment.

“I definitely feel more rounded and refined than I was,” Patch said. “I just feel more calm and present in the moment and the anxiety of being a freshman on the court — now it’s just more of a leadership role and getting the job done.”

While BYU's frontline positions present few question marks, the setter and libero positions have yet to be figured out.

At libero, Olmstead will work to replace Jaylen Reyes, who is now part of BYU's coaching staff as an assistant coach.

“We’ve got to have a good libero to take charge and cover a lot of space. That’s what you want out of a good libero,” Olmstead said. “So we have good players and we’ll see this weekend if we can define (the position) a little bit more.”

Players vying for the libero spot include senior Evan Chang, sophomore Erik Sikes and freshman Chandler Gibb.

At setter, the Cougars were dealt a bit of a blow with Tyler Heap leaving the team just prior to the start of the season. Now Olmstead will rely upon senior Robbie Sutton, sophomore Leo Durkin and freshman Andrew Lincoln to man the critical spot.

BYU's ability to fill the libero and setter positions will go a long way in determining the course of the season. They're not the positions most notable to the casual fan, but the spots charged with doing the little things necessary to keep the big guns up front swinging effectively.

As for those big guns up front, they're also focused on doing the necessary digs and passes that don't readily get noticed, but are crucial to any volleyball team's success.

“Mentally we have to be more confident that we can do the little things and don’t have to be this big, explosive team all the time,” Patch said. “But that we can win by little plays, and little movements, rather than just big, athletic capabilities.”

“I’ve told them time and time again that they don’t need to be more physical,” Olmstead added. “These guys can jump high and hit hard. That’s the bottom line and they can do that very well. It’s going to be the little things that hold us back and becoming great. So that’s what we’re working toward, and we’re going to get there, but it’s just the little things.”


Twitter: @BrandonCGurney