UGA linebacker Monty Rice strips the ball from Gators running back Jordan Scarlett during the team's 2018 matchup in Jacksonville. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia’s improving LB corps features ‘surest tackler in the SEC’

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 season, 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 likely was the reason he began last season as the Bulldogs’ starting middle linebacker.

“He’s a smart guy, really intelligent and he’s a heavy hitter,” UGA defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said. “When he puts his pads on, I think guys feel it.”

Georgia’s linebacker play fell off last season after the departure of 2017 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Roquan Smith.

Rice, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, 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 to the Missouri game Sept. 22, an injury that lingered.

“Monty gives us a tough, physical presence,” Kirby Smart said in 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 tackles 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 Massachusetts game Nov. 17, only to suffer a foot injury during warm-ups that essentially sidelined him the remainder of the season.

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