Excellence enveloped by dispair

Moscow--It's been hellish at times this season, especially after games when he attempts to make sense of it all.

Brad Rice tries to forget, but it's not that simple for the University of Idaho's senior linebacker from Lewiston. His mind doesn't work that way.

He's able to free his psyche of the pain, but only for a few seconds before he replays some of the game in his mind, analyzing bits and pieces. It's something he probably got from his parents -- his father, Steve, is a lawyer; his mother, Julie, is a teacher.

He tries to describe what he's feeling, playing on a team that was supposed to challenge for the Sun Belt Conference title, but instead is 1-9. With every loss, it seems as if someone is punching him in the stomach.

"To whatever extent is possible, I try not to think about that stuff," he said. "It's over and done with and there's nothing you can do about it. You just try to focus on what's coming up next, fix mistakes and try to win the next one. You try to keep positive. But when you lose so many, it's hard to not think about it."

The fact that he's one of the defensive captains -- and one of two defensive players to start every game this season -- hasn't made things any easier. Idaho's defensive numbers have been a nightmare as the Vandals rank dead last in Division I-A in allowing 46.2 points and 484 yards a game.

"It's probably the hardest thing I've been through in my life," Rice said. "Obviously, I'm still young and haven't experienced a whole lot, but most of my life has been centered around sports and I've never struggled in sports like this. From rec softball to Little League baseball, I've never experienced anything remotely similar."

That's why he's almost embarrassed to talk about the season he's having, which has been something else.

Recruited out of Lewiston High to play quarterback, Rice was eventually moved to the defensive secondary where he started at safety the past two seasons. He finished second on the team in tackles as a sophomore with 94 and third last year with 92.

When the UI coaching staff re-evaluated the team over the winter, they decided Rice's athleticism and speed would be perfect at linebacker.

"That was one of those moves where you hope it works but after a couple of days you say ‘That was a no-brainer' " Idaho coach Tom Cable said. "He really, really has become a playmaker now. He can just go in there and turn it loose."

Rice has flourished at linebacker, first at the weakside position and later in the middle. He leads UI and the Sun Belt Conference in tackles with 95 and he has three of the Vandals' four interceptions this season.

"I kind of wish I had moved to linebacker earlier in my career," Rice said. "It's been my favorite spot. But the physical way I progressed, it wasn't really possible. When I came here, I weighed only 195 pounds (he's now in the 220-225 range)."

Rice said playing linebacker is a lot like being the quarterback of the defense as he's involved in every play and also provides on-field leadership.

"He just seems to get better and better every week," Cable said. "He's had a terrific year and is a positive leader. He's the kind of guy you want to have in the locker room. I think the world of Brad Rice. He's the kind of guy who stands out."

He really stood out last week as he was credited with 19 tackles. But again the Vandals suffered a disheartening loss, falling to Sun Belt champion North Texas 50-27.

"It's really hard to comment on my season just because of the loss factor," he said. "I don't want to sound like I'm tooting my own horn but I think I have played pretty good at linebacker. I've been pleased.

"But I don't care about that stuff as much as winning. If we would have won every game and, statistically, I was the worst linebacker to ever play football, I would be happier and feel better as a football player."

Statistically, Rice is one of the better defensive players in the program's history. He has 303 career tackles, which ranks him eighth on the school's all-time list. He needs 10 tackles this week to jump to sixth, right behind former teammate and linebacker Chris Nofoaiga.

He'll be up for all-conference honors, but again he'd happily trade any personal distinction for wins.

"I figured like everyone else we'd be first or second in the conference," he said. "I was really planning on having a great senior year and coming out a winner. I thought the worst-case scenario is we'd just barely have a winning record."

Rice said the defensive numbers aren't a good measure of the unit. "But the bottom line is when you give up as many points as we do, you are not going to win games," he said. "We've had our moments but we weren't consistent. We haven't had a game where we played consistently well every quarter and dominated."

He knows defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato is taking some heat over the defense's play, but stands firmly behind his coach.

"I can't say enough about him," Rice said. "That guy cares more about the players. He works harder than any coach I've ever been around. He takes it so personal when we lose and things don't work out. He really cares about the players, especially the seniors."

This season hasn't been all bad, however.

"I've had fun this year even though we're 1-9," Rice said. "I really cherish the time with my teammates and I enjoy the coaches and the administration. I've had fun, but it's nothing like winning. You just have to take the good out of everything and go on."

Rice's college career won't go on. It comes to an end Saturday when the Vandals wrap up the season in Missoula against the University of Montana.

"It's kind of strange to think I have only a couple practices and one game left," he said. "Monday after the game I have no obligations or commitment to the football team. I don't have to show up for meetings or weight training next week. That's really strange."

He said being able to play close to home has made the experience more special.

"Whenever I go home, people in Lewiston take pride in local kids who go away to play in college," Rice said. "People talk to me and tell me they're following what I've been doing. It's been kind of special to have family and friends be able to watch me."

Rice said his time in the program seemed to go by pretty fast. He'll graduate next month with a degree in finance, but is planning to stick around another semester to finish an accounting degree and train for the possibility of playing professional football.

"It's been my dream to play professionally but if that doesn't work out and my career is over, I can accept that," he said.

If football is indeed over, he plans on attending law school, probably at Idaho.

"I most likely will work in Idaho so it's silly to go somewhere else to get a law degree," he said. "It will be close to home and I will get to watch my younger teammates play for the next few years."

He said even though his playing career will be over, he will still feel like a part of the program.

"I think back about just how much fun it's been for me and how special this place has been to me. It's true what they say: Once a Vandal, always a Vandal. I know how diehard Vandal alums can be and that is going to be me from here on out. I'll be a big supporter of the football team for life and go to the games.

"It will be strange to go watch and not play, but I went to a heckuva lot of games before I came here," said Rice, whose father is a UI alumnus and took him to games while growing up. "I will take pride in whatever success they have from here on out. I'm part of the Vandal tradition so anything they do from here on out I will be a part of it, too."

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