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UCLA football keeps masks on, fingers crossed amid COVID-19 threat

UCLA coach Chip Kelly expresses his opinion to an official during a game.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly, shown in a game at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 13, says everyone in the program needs to be “really heightened” against the threat of COVID-19.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Chip Kelly is known for his lengthy list of colorful phrases from “win the day” at Oregon to the mantra “habits reflect the mission” that is now embroidered on the inside of UCLA’s jerseys.

Amid a national surge of coronavirus cases caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the UCLA coach is adding another: “Protect the ecosystem.”

As they enter game week preparations for their Holiday Bowl matchup against North Carolina State, the Bruins are doubling down on precautions to guard against a COVID-19 outbreak that could spoil their first bowl game since 2017. Players and coaches are wearing face masks indoors again. Large team meetings have been moved outdoors. On Wednesday, a large screen was set up on the practice field with rows of folding chairs.

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“Everybody’s got to be really heightened,” Kelly said. “Our players, we’ve been around this group for a while with this and they’ve done an unbelievable job but there’s also some variants that it sounds like it’s really highly transmissible so we’ve got our fingers crossed.”

Barring a COVID-19 disruption, UCLA will play No. 18 N.C. State on Dec. 28 in the Holiday Bowl — the first bowl game for nearly the entire Bruins roster.

If Kelly’s regular speeches aren’t enough, players get reminders every time they scroll through social media to see headlines about another player from the NBA, NFL or NHL entering health and safety protocols. Both basketball programs at UCLA are paused because of COVID-19 outbreaks. On Wednesday morning, Texas A&M had to back out of the Gator Bowl because it didn’t have enough scholarship players available between COVID-19 issues and injuries.

Besides the threat of a positive coronavirus test knocking a player out for 10 days — thus eliminating him from UCLA’s game on Tuesday — the Bruins are mindful of university-level changes for the upcoming term. UCLA announced Tuesday that winter quarter classes would begin remotely and students, staff and faculty will be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot before returning to campus.

About 98% of UCLA’s football players are vaccinated, Kelly said, with discussions about booster shots ongoing. Offensive lineman Jon Gaines II and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said they had not yet received the extra dose of protection but were planning to soon. Gaines, noting the uncertainty about temporary side effects that could prevent him from performing on the field, has his appointment scheduled for two days after UCLA’s bowl game.

The threat of COVID-19 is so prevalent in college football that Michigan is opting for teamwide booster shots this week, offensive lineman Andrew Stueber told reporters. The Wolverines will play Georgia in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31.

With UCLA on winter break, athletes and coaches are some of the only people roaming around campus, giving them the feeling of a loose bubble. For Gaines, keeping a tight social circle is no problem.

“It’s my cat and I just in the room,” the senior said. “I just cook and play video games and mind my business.”

New coach in town

UCLA announced the hiring of Ikaika Malloe on Wednesday, adding the former Washington assistant to coach outside linebackers.

Malloe will replace Jason Kaufusi, who was hired at Arizona earlier this month. Malloe, a former safety at Washington, coached the defensive line from 2016-20 at his alma mater before shifting to outside linebackers in 2021. He was the co-defensive coordinator in his final two seasons and coached future NFL players in Vita Vea (Buccaneers), Greg Gaines (Rams) and Levi Onwuzurike (Lions).

“He’s an outstanding coach,” Kelly said, emphasizing Malloe’s track record with successful defenses, recruiting and developing players. “Then as you just get to know him, he’s just a quality person. … He shares the same values and visions that this university and everybody here has about recruiting student-athletes and getting into a place where they can be here for four years and become better because of it.”

UCLA will play its first three games — and five of its first six — at the Rose Bowl next season as part of a home-heavy schedule.

Malloe will be an analyst for the bowl season, helping the Bruins scout N.C. State. Clancy Pendergast, a former USC defensive coordinator, filled a similar role this season before taking over as defensive line coach for the bowl game after former assistant Johnny Nansen was hired as Arizona’s defensive coordinator.

Kelly said he hopes to “nail down the [permanent] defensive line job here very shortly.”

Etc.

Defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight was not seen on the field during the open viewing period.


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