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Oregon to rely on G.P.'s Smith

McEwen, Aleman should also vie for playing time

EUGENE -- Oregon will play before an expected sellout crowd when it opens the football season Sept. 2 against Michigan State at East Lansing, Mich.

And at least one of the Ducks figures to get a smattering of applause.

Former Grants Pass High athlete Matt Smith will know the lay of the land at Spartan Stadium and more than a few locals when he starts at linebacker for Oregon.

Smith, 23, played parts of four seasons of professional baseball and finished his career in 1998 as a pitcher for the Lansing Lugnuts.

His first three pro seasons, including one with the Lugnuts, was spent as a first baseman.

It turned out I couldn't shorten my swing enough to go on in baseball, and then I got tendinitis in my pitching (left) shoulder, Smith said Wednesday during the Ducks' media day at Autzen Stadium.

So the former Oregon prep all-state quarterback and linebacker returned to the gridiron.

Out of high school, Smith had signed a football letter of intent with Stanford. A fan of the Ducks since boyhood, he asked Stanford to release him from the commitment so he could play for Oregon following his baseball career.

He'll begin his junior season in a familiar place. Among those watching in East Lansing will be Frank and Ann Mortl, the parents of Smith's girlfriend, Teresa Mortl. The daughter, a teacher in the Portland area, won't be able to attend.

They (the parents) are pretty big Michigan State fans, but I think I've got them convinced to root for the Ducks, said Smith, a robust-looking 6-foot-4, 243-pounder.

I've been in that stadium (Spartan Stadium) a couple of times, and I know how loud it will be with 80,000 screaming fans in there, said Smith. But I'm looking forward to it.

We (the Ducks) have to step up to the challenge of opening the season in their house, said Smith. They (the Spartans) will be looking for us because we weren't very hospitable to them here last year.

Oregon opened its 1998 season with a 48-14 rout of Michigan State at Autzen Stadium.

Smith reported to Oregon's camp the week of that game after finishing his season with the Lugnuts.

I was glad to see Matt get into town, but I was mad at him because he didn't bring me a scouting report on Michigan State, said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti.

Smith said he knows very little about the 1999 Spartans, except that quarterback Bill Burke is expected to be the starter.

He's pretty good, but he had a long day against us last year, said Smith. Hopefully, we can get after him again this year and put a lot of pressure on him.

Smith is one of three local players expected to figure prominently in Oregon's playing rotation this season.

Freshman Cy Aleman, a 6-3, 190-pound redshirt freshman from Ashland High, is the No. 2 flanker behind Pac-10 Conference all-star Tony Hartley. Aleman moved up when Bobby Nero was ruled academically ineligible for the season.

Seth McEwen, a 6-5, 245-pound freshman from North Medford High, is contending for playing time at right defensive end. He has moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart.

I'm excited to get started, said McEwen, who also redshirted last year. There are a lot of nerves involved in how I feel, but I'm confident I'm ready to help the Oregon defense. I feel I'm on track to help this team, but the main thing I want to do is be the best team player I can be. I'm not looking for individual recognition.

Growing up in Medford, McEwen was a big, strong kid with lots of athletic talent. It has paid off.

I've done what I had to do to become one of 105 players on this team, he said. That says a lot because not just anybody could make this team.

Aleman spent the summer lifting weights and catching footballs.

I didn't have a great spring as far as practices, but I'm ready for fall camp, said Aleman. Fall practice is different than spring ball because the season is coming.

I already have more energy. Just the thought of having a chance to get out on the field at Michigan State is enough to get my adrenaline going.

The Ducks began fall practices today. They'll work out twice a day for the next two weeks.