As Dave Serrano begins his third season as UT's head baseball coach, many unanswered questions ominously float through the air.
Will the Diamond Vols produce a winning season for the first time in four years? Who's the replacement for former ace Zack Godley? Can UT make its first SEC tournament appearance since 2007?
But one item the coach won't hear about is who will be called upon for consistent offensive production.
Christin Stewart has asserted himself as the answer.
The sophomore outfielder continued his torrid offseason Friday afternoon, going 3-for-3 with a home run and an RBI as he led the Orange team to a 6-4 victory over the White in the Vols' 10th intersquad scrimmage of the fall.
"Christin brings thunder in his bat to the middle of our lineup, and he's a very tough out for our pitchers to see each and every day," Serrano said. "Christin will probably be a mainstay in the middle of our order, and we expect him to drive in runs and hit some balls over the fence."
After a successful offseason that began in the remote areas of Alaska, the Lawrenceville, Ga., native has brought his summer productivity back with him to Knoxville.
"I'm just very blessed," Stewart said. "I'm just happy I'm still swinging it well. I've been seeing the ball pretty well. I'm just going to ride the wave and see where it goes."
The sophomore knows, however, that on-field success won't entirely come from clutch base hits or towering home runs; the minute details are equally as important.
"The little things pile up," Stewart said. "Coaches stress doing the little things right all the time. Playing team baseball, getting bunts down, keeping our team room clean, the little stuff that's what going to help us win games."
While Stewart has established himself early as a prominent offensive presence, Serrano and the coaching staff are still getting a feel for the talent they have elsewhere, particularly on the mound.
Returning players Nick Williams, Drake Owenby and Matt Esparza as well as program newcomers Bret Marks, Zac Grotz and Josh Peterson all threw two innings Friday, but Serrano was rather unimpressed with the overall pitching performance.
"I think Zac Grotz is the only one that really pitched well," Serrano said of the JUCO transfer, who tossed two shutout frames with one strikeout and zero walks. "Today was a good day with some names wise, and they didn't perform how they should."
Serrano was quick to point out that every hurler is still being heavily evaluated and that one performance — good or bad — won't determine anything.
"There are some guys that are pitching well," Serrano said. "Over the course of a week when you're playing four games, you're seeing a lot of different arms go out there, and you're just evaluating how each guy's going, how each guy's doing. Hopefully they're continuing to progress and learn from their success and learn from their failures.
"Do we have a long ways to go? Yeah, but what I and my coaching staff are looking at is we see a lot of good athletes."
Williams weekend workhorse?
As one of only two seniors on the pitching staff, Williams is a prime candidate to replace Godley as the "Friday guy."
The former Farragut Admiral has fluctuated between starter and reliever during his UT stay, appearing in 63 career games with 20 starts. Williams believes his final campaign could consist of rotation anchor but is comfortable in any capacity that translates into wins.
"That's the goal in mind is to be the 'Friday guy,' but also, I want to help the team out any way I can," Williams said. "You've got to be a team guy also."
Serrano knows the big game experience the senior right-hander has but isn't treating him any differently from the other hurlers.
The third-year head coach feels the ongoing competition among the pitching staff will aid Williams as he progress throughout the fall.
"Obviously Nick's pitched a lot of big games for us, but he's being pushed just like everyone else," Serrano said. "He knows there is some competition ... and that's a good thing.
"I'd be more concerned if we just knew that Nick Williams was going to be our Friday guy," he said. "I think there's some guys that are going to push him throughout the season, and we'll see how the cards fall in the end."
Early, early season excitement
While the Diamond Vols' season opener isn't for another four months, Serrano's squad will soon play its first real scrimmage on Oct. 25 against the Belmont Bruins at Lindsey Nelson Stadium; an event that will conclude the fall portion of the offseason.
"It's going to be a blast," Williams said. "We're all looking forward to it, getting out there and facing another team instead of seeing the same people over and over. We get to look at a different team. See what they're got. See what we still need to work on."