Rice makes good, finally

After an injury, receiver stars for Gamecocks.
Friday, December 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:25 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Two years ago, Sidney Rice was a big deal. A star high school football and basketball player in Gaffney, S.C, he was one of those guys who everyone knew.

One year — and one hyperextended knee that caused him to miss his freshman season at South Carolina — later, and Rice was no longer a celebrity. It was like Ashlee Simpson’s career after she cackled her way through the Orange Bowl halftime show.

Even his own teammates had started to forget about him.

“In high school, I played against Sidney and I knew he was a great player and he could catch balls, but last year, when he got redshirted, he was over there with the scout team and everything, and we didn’t really notice him,” safety Ko Simpson said. “But he just came out of nowhere and blew up.”

“Blew up,” as extravagant as it sounds, actually might be an understatement. In 10 games this season, Rice had 12 touchdown catches (plus two that were nullified by penalties) and 952 yards, both tops in the Southeastern Conference. He averaged 16.4 yards a reception, making an otherwise stagnant South Carolina offense potentially explosive.

He’ll look to continue his production against Missouri in the Independence Bowl at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

“Sidney Rice is our wide receiver, probably our most valuable player,” coach Steve Spurrier said. “He caught 12 touchdowns and had a couple called back. Big kid, 6-4, and came out of nowhere.”

Rice was named to the All-SEC first team and several Freshman All-America teams. It’s a safe bet that his popularity is back.

Of course, it didn’t return without a dry spell. Rice was expected to make a big contribution to the Gamecocks as a true freshman in coach Lou Holtz’s final season, but injured his knee in pregame warmups for South Carolina’s season opener against Vanderbilt. By the time Rice recovered, coaches decided he was too valuable to use a full year of his eligibility for half a season.

“When I hurt the knee, that was one of the worst parts of my career,” said Rice, who said he chose to attend South Carolina despite his mother’s wishes that he attend Syracuse, because he wanted to stay close to home.

That’s a good thing for Spurrier. In spring practice, the Ol’ Ball Coach singled Rice out as having the best hands on the team. The rest of the expectations came from his physical ability. Rice is 6-foot-4 and is a renowned leaper, a good enough basketball player that he was going to play both sports at South Carolina until the injury.

The highlight of spring practice came in the Gamecocks’ Garnet and Black game, where Rice outleaped a defender in the end zone to make a spectacular snag of a Blake Mitchell pass. The play made the day’s top 10 on ESPN’s “Sportscenter.”

“He was a great basketball player, so we knew he could jump and just through practice, you could tell he had really good hands,” Mitchell said. “I just think you’ve got to give him a shot to catch it.

“And he’ll catch it.”

Simpson said he can see how opposing players can have trouble with Rice. After all, Simpson has to cover him in practice.

“He can go up and get it,” Simpson said. “You know you can’t jump with him, you’ve just got to wait until he comes down and knock the ball out.”

But an impressive spring didn’t mean Rice was done with speed bumps. In fall practice, he broke his pinky and needed surgery to insert a screw in the finger, forcing him to again miss South Carolina’s first game.

“I was ready to go and then the pinky held me out,” Rice said. “It was kind of like ‘Here we go again,’ but at least I knew it wouldn’t be as serious (as the knee injury).”

And when he did return, for the Gamecocks’ Sept. 10 game against Georgia, it was coming-out party that no one expected.

A 25-yard catch on South Carolina’s second drive. A 20-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter that was called back on a motion penalty that probably had no effect on the play itself. And finally, a long catch on a fourth-quarter drive that set up his own 4-yard touchdown two plays later. All of this in front of more than 92,000 hostile fans in Athens, Ga., and against the No. 9 team in the country and eventual SEC champs.

“That first game against Georgia,” Mitchell said, “you knew he was going to be something special.”

Rice didn’t slow down. He set a school record with touchdown catches in eight straight games – the first eight games of his career. He caught seven passes during Carolina’s three-game winning streak against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Then, he said, with the Gamecocks’ next game against Arkansas, he started seeing special attention on almost every play.

“That’s when I really started getting double-teamed,” he said.

That really slowed him down – but not really. His four catches, 51 yards and touchdown catch were instrumental in a defensive, 14-10 victory.

And the SEC was known for great defense this season. Missouri has struggled with big-play wide receivers. New Mexico’s Hank Baskett burned the Tigers for 209 yards and three scores and Oklahoma State’s D’Juan Woods had 125 yards and a touchdown. Plus, senior safety Jason Simpson, arguably Missouri’s pass defender, is suspended for the Independence Bowl.

Mitchell said it will be difficult not to look Rice’s way on every play.

“You always want to go to him because you know he’s kind of a big-play guy,” Mitchell said. “Even if the guy’s on him, he’s still got a real good chance of catching them. You kind of, at times, tend to look his way.”

So now Rice is back where he belongs. Although he’s a bit soft-spoken, a yes-sir, no-sir kind of guy, he gravitates towards the spotlight. To him, in fact, his success hasn’t come out of nowhere.

“People ask me that question a lot,” he said. “It wasn’t a surprise. I know what I’m capable of doing.”

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