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(Curtis Compton/AJC)
Georgia sophomore Monty Rice would very much like to be the inside linebacker that succeeds Roquan Smith. But there's not guarantee at this point that he will be.

Own the East: Georgia’s Monty Rice loves the idea of succeeding Roquan Smith

GEORGIA’S OWN #4: LB MONTY RICE

ATHENS – Roquan Smith hung out at Georgia’s football complex for a while during his contract holdout with the Chicago Bears earlier this month. The NFL first-rounder spent most of his time in the Bulldogs’ training room getting treatment or in the weight room working out. But he did venture out to practice from time-to-time to get a glimpse of the defense he was leaving behind.

Monty Rice, Smith’s heir apparent, was asked if the Butkus Award-winning, All-America linebacker had any last words of advice for him and the other guys seeking to fill his void.

“Yeah,” Rice said with a grin. “’Don’t jump out of the ‘A’ gap.’”

That’s it?

“Yep.”

Georgia football-Monty Rice-Own the East
Georgia linebacker Monty Rice (airborne) is known for getting more than a little excited during Georgia’s games. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)

The truth is, there’s really not a lot to say about it. When the discussion turns to who might replace the irreplaceable Roquan, it’s Rice whose name most often comes up. But nobody knows that for sure. The general thought is whomever it is can’t be expected to play at the same level as Smith.

But say this for Rice: He is neither running from that challenge nor beating his chest about following a legend. In fact, heading into the final week of preseason camp, he couldn’t even say if he’s going to be a starter.

“We’re all competing at a high level and we’re just going to continue doing that,” Rice said recently. “Nobody’s a starter right now.”

Coach Kirby Smart corroborated that assertion on Monday.

In practice, it has looked like senior Natrez Patrick and junior Tae Crowder were the pair of inside linebackers most often working with the No. 1 defense. But at other times, Rice and senior Juwan Taylor might be in there. Occasionally, there might be a remix of those four.

Nothing’s clear at this point.

“Those guys alternate,” Smart said. “They have a lot of similar qualities among the four of them. None of them really stand out as a different kind of linebacker. So, we’re able to play those four guys.”

Rice, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore, is the youngest of that group. But the native Alabaman was the one who was emerging from the group toward the end of last season. He ended up starting one game – vs. Missouri last September – and finished with 22 tackles.

But things have cooled a little bit on Rice since then. He didn’t work with the No. 1 defense in the G-Day Game last spring and often has been playing second fiddle to Crowder and Patrick in camp.

“We mix it up and stuff, do different rotations, play different guys,” Rice said. “So, I could be playing ‘Mike’ or ‘Will.’ If somebody gets hurt or something, I might have to play ‘Money,’ let’s say. So, I have to learn how to play them all.”

There are a lot of reasons to believe that Rice still might emerge as Smith’s successor, though. Aside from newly-arrived freshman Channing Tindall, he’s the fastest among the inside linebackers. He’s not as fast as Smith, unfortunately, but he hits like him upon arrival. His tackles tend to be full-body takedowns.

Teammates talk about an extra gear he has, a level of intensity he rises to when the lights come on and a there’s real sanctioned contest to be decided.

He becomes a bit of a wild man, they say. He plays mad.

“He’s one of those guys that you can’t calm him down once he gets going,” said Taylor, who is often paired with him. “But overall. Monty is a great player. He’s fast for his size, very athletic, a tough guy, too.”

Size, speed, toughness. All required attributes for linebackers.

Meanwhile, Patrick clearly has fulfilled whatever disciplinary requirements Smart laid out for him after his second suspension of the season last year. He’s the most experienced linebacker in the locker room and, as a 6-3, 240-pound “thumper” he provided the perfect complement as the Mike linebacker to Smith’s Will.

It would follow that such a combination might also work with Rice and Patrick.

Rice is content for now just to do and say all the right things. He knows his opportunities will come, and he aims to be ready when they do.

“I just take it day-by-day,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to the next practice. We’re just trying to be the best team we can be.”

If Rice can be the linebacker he’s believed to be, he’ll a reason Georgia could “Own the East.”