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(Hyosub Shin/AJC)
Georgia linebacker Monty Rice (32) and safety J.R. Reed struggle to drag down Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn during last Saturday's game at Sanford Stadium.

No second thoughts about LSU for Georgia LB Monty Rice

ATHENS — Surprisingly, Monty Rice was surprised by the question.

Georgia’s primary middle linebacker said it hadn’t occurred to him that he might be asked about his one-time commitment to LSU until he was asked about it after Tuesday’s practice. Never mind, that Rice’s No. 2-ranked Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0 SEC) are playing 12th-ranked LSU (5-1, 1-1) at Tiger Stadium on Saturday in Baton Rouge.

Chalk it up to tunnel vision, maybe. It’s understandable that Rice may be too busy working on how to stop the Tigers to contemplate that he once thought hard about playing for them.

Now faced with the question, Rice handled it like an opposing guard. That is, he clearly wanted to get away from it as quickly as possible.

“I was just in high school, it was one of many schools that I was considering and I’m here now,” Rice said.

Rice quickly disposed of a few other quick-follows as well, like, how many times he’d been to a game at LSU (“one”), who the opponent was (“Florida”) and what the environment was like (“good; loud”)? Oh, and then there was one about who he knows that will be on the LSU sideline Saturday.

“I know their running back Tae Provens; he’s from my area; Devin White hosted me on my official; I know Jacob Phillips a little bit,” Rice said.

And with that, Rice was able to dispose with that line of questioning. If one hasn’t heard it, though, it is Rice’s Flip is remarkable recruiting story. In a nutshell, he committed to LSU in December, immediately felt he’d made a mistake, called Georgia’s Kirby Smart and told him so, then entered Georgia as an early enrollee in January of 2017 without ever signing anything.

Smart was asked to comment on Rice’s recruitment Tuesday as well.

“I don’t think about it; these kids change their minds all the time,” Smart said. “Recruiting is musical chairs until signing day. That doesn’t disturb me. He called us after he did it and said ‘I don’t know what I just did – I really want to come to Georgia,’ and we kept recruiting him and he decided to come. I don’t think that’s a big deal to him or anybody. He’s a good kid and he made the decision he wanted to make.”

Georgia is glad of that.

“I’d rather be playing with him than against him,” said senior and fellow inside linebacker Natrez Patrick. “I feel like he’s going to be a phenomenal player. He’s already a great player. He just has a knack for the ball. You can’t beat him.”

Asked to describe Rice’s playing style in one word, Patrick said, “relentless.”

The bottom line is Rice has a big job ahead of him on Saturday. As a middle linebacker, Rice will play a major role in trying to contain LSU’s offense. The Tigers are averaging 33.3 points per game and have opened up their offense considerably under transfer quarterback Joe Burrow and new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.

Rice actually can’t be called a starter for the Bulldogs. He splits time at the position “will” position with senior Juwan Taylor, who has six starts to his one. Patrick has started four games.

But Rice is in the game as much or more than all of them. He’s the leader among linebackers and second on the team with 26 stops. Safety Richard LeCounte leads the team with 33 tackles.

Playing tough and stopping the run will be the Bulldogs’ primary focus as they focus an LSU squad averaging 190 yards rushing a game. It’s Rice’s kind of game.

“I enjoy any game that I get to tackle somebody,” he said. “But that’s anybody in the SEC. Missouri, Vandy, Tennessee, they’ve all got big guys that run hard and like to hit. They’re a very tough team and (Nick) Brossette is a very tough runner. You’ve just got to bring it or you’re going to get run through.”

Stopping the run hasn’t been Georgia’s most impressive defensive trait this season. The Bulldogs are third in the SEC in rush defense at 113.2 yards per game, but have given up five rushing TDs, including  four against Missouri.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are expected to be missing three defensive linemen on Saturday. Noseguards Devonte Wyatt and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle and defensive end David Marshall are out with injuries.

So you won’t hear Rice or any other Georgia defender beating their chest about leading the SEC and being one of the top teams in the nation in total defense (283.2 ypg) and points allowed (13.0).

“We’re doing all right,” Rice said. “Vanderbilt scored on the last play of the game so,. you know, you never want the other team to score. It’s just a pride thing. So I think we can get better in a lot of areas, but we’re doing all right.”

If the Bulldogs continue to excel and wins on Saturday, Rice likely will have been a big reason why. But having once played to wear the purple and gold rather than the red and black doesn’t make this week’s challenge any bigger than any others Rice has faced in his still-young career.

“It’s just like any other game,” Rice said. “I don’t feel any pressure. It is what it is.”