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Monty Rice, Dylan Moses and the importance of losing your middle linebacker
Dylan Moses was probably going to be the best defensive player on Alabama’s team this season. The middle linebacker led his team in tackles a season ago and was a First Team All-SEC selection heading into the 2019 campaign.
But all that is for not now after news came out that the junior linebacker suffered a torn ACL. The injury very likely costs Moses his entire season junior season.
It’s a devastating injury for one of the top defensive players on one of college football’s best teams. And if there’s anyone in the country who could perhaps understand what this type of loss might mean, it’s Georgia linebacker Monty Rice.
Rice had been Georgia’s leading tackler heading into the UMass game in 2018. And while the linebacker play at Georgia wasn’t what it was when Roquan Smith was manning the position, Rice made the unit better.
But minutes before kickoff of the UMass game, Rice injured an already bothersome foot. The injury proved to be significant enough to keep Rice out not only for the meaningless November game but also for the rest of the season.
Georgia’s run defense a season ago was pedestrian at best, and problematic at worst. After stabilizing during the Florida, Kentucky and Auburn games, the rush defense regressed with Rice out of the lineup.
Rice wasn’t out there to try and slow down the Alabama rushing attack nor Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger in the Sugar Bowl. In the Alabama defeat, Georgia allowed a season-worst 5.41 yards per carry. That number is almost certainly lower if Rice is in the game.
While just about everyone brings up the role D’Andre Walker played in the SEC championship game, it’s fair to wonder if Georgia would’ve toppled the Tide if Rice had a chance to try and wrangle Jalen Hurts.
But Rice isn’t looking backwards. He’s not dwelling on dashed dreams and missed opportunities.
“We can’t look back and say ‘what if?’ There was nothing I could do about getting hurt. Everything happens for a reason,” Rice said.
The leaders of the Georgia football program — Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and quarterback Jake Fromm — have reiterated this same line of thinking constantly this offseason. Rice falls into that category as well now and should be seen as one of the leaders of the Georgia defense this season.
Smart did add that Rice was frustrated by the events at the end of the 2018 season. But the Georgia head coach has been very impressed by the growth of Rice.
“He gives exceptional effort. He works really hard in the classroom and in the meeting room,” Smart said. “For us, he’s done really well, and we’re really proud of Monty. He works his tail off. It’s really important to him, and he leads others.”
Related: WATCH: Georgia LB Monty Rice ‘not scared of anything on this planet’
In the 2017 season, Rice got an up-close personal look at what greatness looks like from an inside linebacker in Smith. It’s not fair to expect Rice to become the next Smith, but it’s worth remembering what kind of impact a dominant middle linebacker can have on the game.
Even heading into the 2019 season, Smith’s shadow over the position still looms large. Earlier this offseason, David Marshall compared freshman inside linebacker Nakobe Dean to the current Chicago Bear.
While praising Rice earlier in the week, Smart even slipped in another reference to the 2017 Butkus Award winner.
“He’s a difference-maker for us because we don’t have a ton of speed at that position,” Smart said of Rice. “Which is lightning fast compared to what we had with Roquan (Smith) but he’s a guy who can run as fast as them.”
Smart was also asked if Georgia was going to have a defensive playmaker like Smith or cornerback Deandre Baker on this year’s defense. The Georgia head coach couldn’t identify just yet if the Bulldogs had someone who could disrupt the game like either of those players.
Rice could possibly become that type of player this season. He’s one of the surest tacklers on the team, and the front 7 around him should be better this year than it was a season ago. Traditionally under Smart, linebackers are the players on defense who create the most negative plays.
And while injuries have been a concern for Rice in the past — he also dealt with a knee injury in 2018 — he won’t be thinking about that on Saturday when he’ll try to take down Vanderbilt running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
“I would say the best part of my game is my aggression,” Rice said. “I am not afraid of contact at all. That is just me being me. I’ve always been that way.”
Should Alabama and Georgia once again meet in the SEC championship game this season, there will surely be people who point out that Alabama will be without its top linebacker. And the Crimson Tide defense will certainly be worse without Moses.
But those same people wondering about the loss of Moses — and Rice for Georgia — should take heed of what Albus Dumbledore once told a young Harry Potter.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live,” Dumbledore said.
Georgia linebacker Monty Rice previews Vanderbilt game