Dave Serrano attentively sat on a bench tucked along the Tennessee bullpen.
With his arms neatly folded across his chest, the Vols' baseball coach scarcely broke eye contact with the pitchers doing drills directly in front of him.
Broad leg kicks were followed by the synchronized cracks of leather.
"It feels great to be back out here," he said. "Real, real nice to be back."
Indeed, baseball is back at Tennessee.
But familiar faces aren't.
In Serrano's second year, 18 freshmen clutter the 2013 roster, which will open the season Feb. 15 at UNLV.
"This is by far the biggest freshman class I've ever brought in — ever," Serrano said. "We're kind of starting all over again, really."
With just three seniors on the roster, position battles were abundant as the Vols opened practice last Saturday. Icy weather the day before forced UT to push back the start of spring practice.
Battle Behind the Plate: The jostling for the starting catcher job is between the trio of junior Ethan Bennett, sophomore Jason Manis and the switch-hitting freshman David Houser.
While Bennett, a former standout at Farragut High School, has the most experience by far with 71 career starts, the younger Houser and Manis have put together solid showings early this spring.
Houser hit a walk-off solo home run to win the Vols' first scrimmage. Serrano said he has been continually impressed by the freshman's ability to work deep into counts.
"I have no problem starting any of those three," Serrano said. "They all have major up-side to them."
Serrano described Manis as a "defense-first" catcher. The second-year coach said he likes the sophomore's consistency behind the plate and the stability he provides with his glove.
Moving Maddox: Will Maddox has found a new home.
After the sophomore started all but one game at second base last season, Maddox has emerged as Tennessee's starting third baseman.
Serrano said Maddox's transition has been close to seamless and had nothing but praises for the Gainesville, Ga., native.
"The best way I can describe Will … is that he's the personality of this team," Serrano said. "If there's one person you would want to describe your team as, it's him. His motor is always going."
Local Leader: Serrano said the one player he was most pleased with following the first few days of practice was Derek Lance.
The Bearden High School graduate impressed Serrano with his steady approach at the plate.
"He really has a nice stroke," Serrano said. "He stays on line with his swing and he's a tough out."
Lance, who spent his high school days playing infield, has moved to the outfield to facilitate a greater team need. Serrano said the transition has been "smooth" and he expects Lance to see playing time at a number of different positions in the outfield.
Key Rotation Returners: Outside of senior Zack Godley, UT's most experienced pitcher and likely Friday starter, returners Nick Williams and Blake Thomas will play a vital role in the pitching successes.
Thomas, a redshirt junior who sat last season with a knee injury, earned Serrano's praises with a handful of nice spring outings.
"He's had a big, big fall," Serrano said. "He has worked as hard as anyone."
Williams likely is to emerge as the closer. The Farragut graduate took over the closing role as a freshman and has made appearances in 45 contests.
With the abundance of youth, Serrano said the Vols will rely heavily on the Williams' leadership, experience and ability to work out of tight situations.
Fan Day: UT will play host to a preseason fan appreciation day on Feb. 9 from 9 a.m. until noon at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Admission is free.
Fans can tour the stadium, meet the team and hit in the new indoor batting cage facility.
"When we had to make the decision to cancel our banquet due to weather concerns, it was important for us to show our fans how much we appreciate their support," Serrano said. "We hope that this event will let them know that they are a part of our team."
Serrano will provide a season preview and participate in a Q&A session 11-11:30 a.m. in the MVP Club Room. The team will practice at noon before holding a scrimmage at 1:30 p.m.