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In the opening minutes of his 40-minute press conference Monday, Mike Bianco spoke of the some 22 new additions to his roster. Bianco is entering his 11th year as Ole Miss head coach. Never has he had more newcomers than veterans to open a season.

But after he was finished, the first player to the podium for another question and answer session with the media was Matt Smith, the versatile fifth-year senior.

Of all the veterans, Smith carries the most experience. He's an unquestioned leader -- a player Bianco will rely on as those youngsters get their feet wet in the day-to-day grind of college baseball.

"I don't feel like we're very young. We have a bunch of new faces," Smith said. "We've got a lot of older guys back. We're going to be really talented. We have a lot of depth and versatility this year. I think that's really going to help us."

Smith was the same soft-spoken, easily accessible player he had always been. He spent his first two seasons at first base before transitioning to right field last season. Smith will anchor an outfield featuring Zach Kirksey and Tanner Mathis barring, of course, a return to first base with Matt Snyder limited following an injury to his shoulder.

Smith returns for his fifth season at Ole Miss
Courtesy: AP File Photo
"If I had my choice, I'd prefer to be in the outfield, but it really doesn't matter," Smith said. "It's cliché, you could say, but whatever is going to help us to where we want to be as a team, that's what I want to do. It's my fifth year. I've been here. I can play first, I can play right. It's not going to make me play any differently whether I'm in right or at first."

Smith has been an offensive machine throughout his Ole Miss his career.

In the just-released Ole Miss media guide, Bianco described Smith as "one of the best hitters we've ever had here in my 10 years." Smith has appeared in at least 58 games in each of the last three seasons, with a combined .342 batting average over the last two.

Despite missing five games due to injury last season, Smith had 12 home runs and team-highs in RBI (54) and runs scored (63). His 12 home runs tied for the team lead.

"He does so much for the team and has been the team captain since his sophomore year," Bianco said. "He's a guy who has already had three great years, but we look for him to have a fourth."

Smith has been around for a while, having played on talented team after talented team. But the Milan, Ga., native considers this year's crop of Rebels as one of the best in his long stay at Ole Miss.

Smith points to the versatility and depth of the team as strengths, quickly discounting the youth factor as opening day approaches Friday at 3 p.m. against Wright State.

"I would definitely put this as one of the top teams I've been on, basically because of the depth we have this year," he said. "It seems like every team I've been on, the furthest we've been, I was a part of a team that had a lot of depth and versatility. You didn't have just three guys you had to rely on day in and day out.

Mike Bianco
Courtesy: AP File Photo
"I'm sure there will be three or four lineups that get mixed in there, and everybody's just as good as the next person. That's why we're going to be the team we're going to be this year."

The Butterfly Effect:

Jake Morgan said Monday he was in the best shape of his life. He has reason to be.

The senior relief pitcher is finally without limitation since concluding an arduous rehabilitation process, which sidelined him for all of the 2010 season, following Tommy John surgery last offseason.

"Having to sit out that last year mentally toughened me up a little bit," he said. "Physically, I'm probably in the best shape of my life. I just have to get out there and do what I know how to do best. Stuff-wise, everything's there. I picked up a change-up. I'm as good or better (than I was)."

He credits his teammates for helping him get through rehab and, now, the transition back to day-to-day baseball activities. They've kept his spirits up.

"It hasn't been that difficult because I have such great teammates supporting me through it," Morgan said. "(Brett) Huber, he was a lot of help to me. He had Tommy John in high school. He really helped me through it. Jon Andy (Scott) and Blair Wright went through it with me. It really hasn't been that difficult."

Morgan was a spectator as Ole Miss finshed with a 39-24 overall record and 16-14 mark in Southeastern Conference play a year ago. He felt helpless, especially when times were tough in mid-April. Ole Miss lost six of eight games, including a mid-week loss to Memphis.

Jake Morgan missed all of 2010
Courtesy: AP File Photo
Then the Rebels caught fire, reeling off 10 straight. He cheered. Huber, filling in for Morgan, had emerged as one of college baseball's more dominant closers. Huber was named a freshman All-American.

"It was tough watching the team and knowing there was nothing I could do to help," Morgan said. "But this year, the transition back into it hasn't really been that difficult. First day back out there in the alumni game, I really got that butterfly effect, as they call it. It just felt good to be back out there."

Fast-forward almost a year later. Bianco is now afforded the enviable opportunity to run out his pick of two proven back-end pitchers. Morgan made 27 relief appearances in 2009, posting a 3.24 ERA and 4-1 overall record with a team-leading nine saves.

"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," Morgan said he and Huber handling closer duties together. "In intrasquads, it was me vs. him. In the bullpen, we warm-up together and joke around with each other. It's going to be a lot of fun. He's going to be there to help me out, I'm going to be there to help him out. I'm really looking forward to it."

Bianco plans to mix and match his closers, though Morgan is likely to be first with the ball on opening day.

"I like (having two closers) because you can never have too much," he said." The way we'll probably handle it, the first game is bring in Jake, then the next day Huber. But we could bring in Huber early and Jake late. But it is very similar to '09 with (Scott) Bittle and Morgan. Bittle became a starter. David Goforth kind of took Jake's spot. Competition breeds competitiveness. Two guys that are All-American types."

Morgan is fine either way. He's simply happy to be pitching again.

"Emotion-wise, you're wondering if you're ready to go," he said. "As soon as you let loose on the ball, that felt great just to throw it again. Throw it against a hitter. Throw it as hard as you could to a location. A sigh of relief just to know that it was through and I was done.

"Just ready to go."

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