The strongest indication yet that UCLA’s redshirt freshman quarterback Chase Griffin will start his second straight game Saturday at the Rose Bowl is that the Bruins’ media staff made him available to reporters this week.
Bruins third-year starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, along with two other starters and possibly as many as 10 players, missed last weekend’s loss at Oregon, after UCLA announced at least two players tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement likely forced several others who came in close contact in quarantine, which is likely the case for Thompson-Robinson.
Thompson-Robinson has since posted on his social media account that he is coronavirus free, but Pac-12 protocols mandate that players who come in close contact with someone who tests positive be quarantined for at least 14 days, which in all likelihood, would knock Thompson-Robinson out of Saturday’s game against Arizona.
UCLA (1-2) is listed as a nine-point favorite over the winless Wildcats (0-2).
Griffin appeared confident and composed in the Bruins’ 38-35 loss to Oregon, completing 19 of 31 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown, but he also had two interceptions and a fumble.
Griffin was asked about playing again this weekend during a Zoom call, and whether or not Thompson-Robinson has been practicing.
“Every week I practice to play, I practice to win the game,” Griffin said. “As far as that goes (Thompson-Robinson), I will have to defer to the coach.”
UCLA coach Chip Kelly said earlier in the week he can’t comment on players in regards to coronavirus issues, even telling reporters if they want to know whether Thompson-Robinson and others are practicing or likely to play, they will have to be like “Columbo” and investigate themselves.
Since Griffin spoke with the media this week and talked about how practices were going, that led to the simple question: Does that mean Griffin is likely to start Saturday?
“I don’t know, that’s good on your part,” Kelly said. “You have to grade yourself, I’m going to grade practice today.”
Kelly said Monday the only thing he could say is whether players are available or unavailable, but when it came to Thompson Robinson’s availability, the third-year coach was coy.
“I can’t say that,” Kelly responded. “I have no idea. We have Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday of (coronavirus) testing, so I can’t predict the future.”
Kelly said no players tested positive on Monday or Tuesday, and in explaining the future, noted that Clemson traveled to Tallahassee to take on Florida State last weekend, only to find out the morning of the game it was canceled because a Clemson player tested positive for the coronavirus.
“That’s why I can’t tell you who’s starting at any position right now,” Kelly said. “You literally don’t know who is going to be available on game day until you get to the last day of protocol testing. That’s why we have our fingers crossed and we’re just going to do what we continue to do and hope nobody tests positive and go with the guys who trained during the week.”
One of those guys training is Griffin, who said he didn’t feel nervous about his first start.
“I play football, I’m a player, so whenever I get that opportunity to get out there in the game, I’m going to seize it,” Griffin said. “I had just as much fun in that game as any other game. I wasn’t uptight or over-nervous, whether it be at Autzen Stadium (in Oregon) or Memorial Stadium in my (high school) hometown of Hutto, Texas. It’s still the same thing. It was a lot of fun to go out there, and last week, just as this week, the mission is always to win.”
Griffin said he was confident and prepared.
“Pretty much we went into the game with a similar – if not the same game plan earlier in the week – before we had the news I would be starting,” Griffin said. “There was not much over-simplification. I practice each week to play regardless of who is to start that week, so nothing was different. The game plan was still the same.”
FRESHMEN LEAVE STRONG IMPRESSION
UCLA is getting strong contributions from a pair of true freshman on defense in outside linebackers Choe Bryant-Strother and Damian Sellers.
Bryant-Strother started against Oregon, but both played a significant amount.
Bryant-Strother and Sellers each had a pair of tackles, and Sellers had a sack. Sellers was talked about more during training camp and is not as much a surprise as Bryant-Strother, who has made the most of his opportunity.
“Both Choe and Damian have really stepped up on defense,” Kelly said. “I think Choe had the first snaps, but both guys played the same amount of snaps or close to it.
“So, we’re really happy with Choe and his production. Obviously, he [Bryant-Strother] was an early enrollee, and that helped him. Because he was here since last January learning our system and what we’re doing, but another big physical kid. You can physically and mentally see those kids growing each game.”
Another true freshman on the field a lot in Saturday’s loss was receiver Matt Sykes.
The four-star recruit, according to 247Sports, had 40 receptions for 742 yards and seven touchdowns his senior year as the No. 4 prospect in Hawaii on a Saint Louis High team that won four consecutive state championships.
Sykes had only one catch in Saturday’s loss, but he may be getting more opportunities as learns the offense.
“The process is really just our terminology compared to their terminology,” Kelly said, alluding to when Sykes was in high school. “We are really happy with the way he has come along. He’s a big, physical kid. He’s up to 210 pounds now.
“He’s all of 6-foot-3 plus. He’s a tall, rangy target. He’s physical in the run game, and he acts and carries himself like a veteran. You would be hard pressed to say, ‘Who’s the freshman out there?’ because of how he carries himself. So we’re really impressed with him.”
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