Returning Veteran

Matt Smith was home in Georgia over the holidays, among other things getting in some hunting and clearing land with his family for future hunts. Next week he heads back to Ole Miss to complete some unfinished business.

Smith arrived at Ole Miss in the fall of 2006. He's been a Rebel for a while. He's played in Regionals and Super Regionals. His game-winning home run against Virginia on day one of the Oxford Super Regional in 2009 is etched in program lore. But the Rebels couldn't complete the deal and head to Omaha.

Now the 23-year-old seasoned veteran of college baseball wars returns to give it one last try. He's anxious to get back and get to work with his teammates.

"I'm definitely excited," said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound outfielder/first baseman. "I've enjoyed my career (at Ole Miss), and I want to top it off right this year."

Throughout the last decade, the program has always made known its goals. Those remain, and they've reached them all over time, except advancing to college baseball's final eight.

Last year wasn't the best team of the Mike Bianco era, and the results showed that. The Rebels were 39-24 but had to travel for a Regional and were not among the final two standing in Charlottesville. Smith, whose redshirt year was the Arizona State Super Regional season, understands the high expectations of the program. He says there's something about this team he likes.

"It just feels different," Smith said of the 2011 edition. "The younger guys and the juco guys have come in and are really talented. The veteran players are going to be that much better. I like what I saw in the fall."

Depth is a key word that keeps coming up with players and coaches whenever this year's team is discussed.

Smith is in his 5th season at UM

"There is better depth," said Smith, who will likely man the right field spot again this season but could play some left field or first base if needed. "In the outfield, in the infield, there are a lot of different combinations that I see. There seem to be a bunch of power arms, and a lot of guys that can throw it in the 90s. Jake Morgan is back, and Brett Huber was strong last year. They are two good ones out of the bullpen."

Smith said with so many arms, the race for starting spots, at least to him, is wide open.

"It's hard to tell who will pitch on the weekend," he said. "And there are some guys who are quality pitchers that will start in the midweek. The pitching staff is deeper. Even with Drew (Pomeranz) gone, we should be strong there."

Smith is known for his athleticism to be able to make plays in the outfield. He's also known as one of the Rebels' power hitters. There's the much-talked-about issue of the new bats the NCAA has mandated. Smith says there has been some adjustment, but actually not as much as some might think.

"There should be more small ball, more stolen bases and bunts," he said. "We'll have to do that. There probably won't be as many home runs. We'll just square up and play baseball, hit some out of the yard, but also hit more into the gaps than we used to. It will be different, but we have adjusted."

The same goes for the Rebel defense.

"We'll have to defend the bunt more," Smith said. "Defensively (in the fall) we paid more attention to those type situations, and we'll be prepared for them. The new bats will change things some offensively and defensively."

Smith has had a couple of road blocks and hurdles during his career. As a redshirt freshman in his first game, he came in to relieve on the mound and went down with an arm injury. He hasn't pitched since and his arm hasn't caused problems for him.

"I feel great," he said. "I have no trouble with my arm. Then there was the breathing thing that was weird and random."

That situation happened in fall ball this season. At first it was thought to perhaps be a heart problem. Later it was diagnosed as an asthma situation that is now under control.

Smith is ready to get back to Oxford next week and get to work toward the season.

"My goals are the same. Our goals are the same," he said. "I want to be consistent and produce and help this team be successful again."

That's something, five years in, that Matt Smith knows all about.

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