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After wildfires, exams and coaching changes, UCLA begins preparations for Cactus Bowl

After wildfires, exams and coaching changes, UCLA begins preparations for Cactus Bowl
UCLA interim coach Jedd Fisch talks to his players during the first half of a game against California on Nov. 24. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

UCLA hasn’t eased its way into bowl preparations with the usual handful of practices and joyful speculation about what players might find in their swag bags.

The Bruins had not practiced for two weeks before Monday because of nearby wildfires and final exams. There was also more upheaval among the coaching staff with the recent departures of linebackers coach Scott White and defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin.

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“I said to Chip the other day,” interim coach Jedd Fisch said, referring to new head coach Chip Kelly, “there’s nothing in the interim head coach manual about how to handle wildfires and some of the other things that occur and we were laughing about it.”

Players reconvened Monday for the first of eight practices as part of what Fisch called “championship week” leading into the Cactus Bowl against Kansas State on Dec. 26 at Chase Field in Phoenix.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen was expected to participate in practice and play against the Wildcats, Fisch said, with the caveat that he would have to be cleared for contact by doctors after having been injured against California on Nov. 24.

Fisch was upbeat in his first meeting with reporters since that game, joking that the Bruins would try to improve to 7-0 at home this season after having been designated the home team for the bowl game.

He also offered this zinger when asked about how the coaching staff would compensate for the loss of White and Martin: “Fortunately for us,” Fisch said, “coach [Tom] Bradley is on his 340th year of coaching.” Bradley, the veteran defensive coordinator, will oversee graduate assistants Dalton Hilliard and Kyle Weiss coaching the defensive backs and linebackers, respectively.

Fisch said the new coaches hired by Kelly had been focused on recruiting ahead of the new early signing day that starts Wednesday, while the holdovers handled bowl preparations.

Oregon showed the difficulties of transitioning to a new coaching staff during bowl season, appearing disjointed during a 38-28 loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday. But Fisch noted some differences between the situations facing the Ducks and Bruins, pointing out that UCLA has already played a game under its interim coach.

“We’ve gone through the gymnastics of how we’re going to handle ourselves,” Fisch said. “We do have a couple of coaching staff changes that have occurred, but these eight days, I feel as if we’re going to get ourselves in a position to hopefully have smooth sailing for the game and everybody do their job the way we expect them to do it.”

Fisch declined to comment on his status at UCLA beyond the bowl game, saying the postseason was his sole focus. He also would not address a report that he had attended a Missouri bowl practice as a candidate for the Tigers’ offensive coordinator vacancy.

“When the time is right to talk about the next move,” Fisch said, “I will be sure to let you guys know what that will be.”

Fisch said UCLA had submitted the names of five juniors for evaluations from an NFL draft advisory committee. Prospects are rated “first round,” “second round” or “stay in school,” said Fisch, who declined to identify the players.

Rosen is widely considered a possible No. 1 draft pick and left tackle Kolton Miller, receiver Jordan Lasley and safety Adarius Pickett are among the other juniors who could draw strong NFL interest.

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