BILLINGS — Ryder Rice is at his best when challenged.

When he wants something — like an opposing quarterback — he is relentless.

Rice relishes being pushed to test himself.

Disruptive on the field and quiet off, Rice’s first football test was proving he could make the transition from the 6-man game he played at Savage to the 11-man game at Rocky Mountain College.

He was a three-year starter for the Battlin’ Bears, earning All-American honors last season at defensive end, helping Rocky win the Frontier Conference title and reach the NAIA playoffs.

But deep down, Rice craved more. He needed another push, both mentally and physically.

Calling it “the hardest decision of my life,” Rice has decided to leave the Battlin’ Bears and play for the University of Montana this fall.

He will not officially be a Grizzly until his acceptance to graduate school. Rice, who earned a degree in business at Rocky, will learn of the decision on July 2.

His reason for leaving the Billings school was simple.

“To prove to myself I can play at the next level,” said Rice, who also harbors hopes of playing professionally someday. “I didn’t want to have any regrets of never trying it.”

One of the most dominant defensive players in the Frontier Conference will be trying to do the same in the Big Sky Conference this fall.

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Rice finished with 56 total tackles in 2018. He had 17 tackles for loss, including 12.5 quarterback sacks. He also had an interception and fumble recovery.

Rice ranked sixth nationally in the NAIA for total sacks and eighth for sacks per game. He was also 19th in the country for tackles for loss.

“I’ve accomplished so much,” said Rice of his Rocky career. “What more is there to do?”

The decision to leave Rocky actually came later than expected.

“Honestly, the plan (coming out of Savage) was to go to Rocky for two years then transfer to Bozeman and play for Montana State,” Rice acknowledged.

But that changed with the arrival of head coach Jason Petrino and his brother Jared, the team’s co-defensive coordinator.

“With the Petrinos, I was having so much fun,” Rice said. “With (Jason) Petrino, it was how he transformed the team into such a brotherhood.”

Jason Petrino left to become the defensive coordinator at Southern Illinois while Jared went to Carroll before joining his brother.

Rice shared his feelings and plans with new head coach Chris Stutzriem.

“He was very supportive. He knew it was nothing personal,” Rice said.

Rice’s deep roots with Rocky made the decision that much tougher. His father Park was an All-American linebacker for the Battlin’ Bears in 1995 and his sister Bridger was playing for the women’s basketball program when her brother arrived on campus in the fall of 2015.

“And we have a ton of family in Billings,” he added.

Rice participated in winter conditioning and spring drills this year.

“For some reason, I was getting stagnant,” he admitted. “I was content with my skills and not working as hard.”

Rice waited a few weeks after spring ball before informing Stutzriem of making his decision to leave final.

“Oh, there were a lot of nights I stayed up thinking about it,” he said. “I’m leaving all my best friends for life.

“I loved my time a Rocky. The best coaches possible, made best friends for life. I got a great education and I loved the size of the classes. You knew almost everybody on campus. And the community was very supportive.

“I’m going from a team where I know everybody to a team where I don’t know anybody and having to learn a whole new defensive system.”

Rice moved to Missoula in June and has been pushing himself through solitary workouts.

“I’m not really nervous,” he continued. “I’m excited for the challenge. I’m excited to have to fight for a starting spot. I’m going in there with high expectations of myself.

“I know challenge. This one moment can make me or break me.”

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Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe

Sports writer at the Billings Gazette

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