ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia coach Kirby Smart doesn’t spend time making excuses, but a look back at 2018 reveals just how valuable of a piece of the defense the Bulldogs were missing at the end of the season.
Linebacker Monty Rice, who led the team in tackles much of the year, was missing against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and for virtually all of the Sugar Bowl against Texas.
Rice was the “surest tackler in the SEC” last season according to Pro Football Focus, which was likely the reason he began last season as the Bulldogs’ starting middle linebacker.
Georgia’s linebacker play fell off last season after the departure of 2017 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Roquan Smith.
Rice, a 6-foot-1, 235-pounder, never could get on track last season after suffering a pulled hamstring in the 2018 spring game.
Rice suffered a sprained knee in days leading up to the Sept. 22 Missouri game, an injury that lingered.
“Monty gives us a tough, physical presence,” Kirby Smart said last October. “I don’t know that he’s 100 percent still. I think he’s getting there.”
Rice looked much better — and so did Georgia — during a key stretch against Florida, Kentucky and Auburn. He had eight tackles or more in each game — including a career-high 11 stops against Florida — as the Bulldogs played arguably their best football of the season.
Rice, only a sophomore last season, was appointed a team captain for the Nov. 17 UMass game, only to suffer a foot injury during warmups that essentially sidelined him the remainder of the season.
Georgia’s linebacking corps is expected to be one of the most improved units on the team with the return of senior inside linebacker Tae Crowder, the addition of freshmen inside linebacker Nakobe Dean and outside linebackers Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson spiking the pass rush.
Rice has shown he can play both inside and outside linebacker, and it’s a good bet he’ll be back in the starting lineup when the season opens at Vanderbilt on Aug. 31 in Nashville.