UCLA football on edge over COVID concerns with bowl game looming

·4 min read
UCLA defensive back Martell Irby (12) runs to the end zone for a touchdown during the second half.
UCLA defensive back Martell Irby will start in place of teammate Qwuantrezz Knight, who is out of the lineup after contracting COVID-19, in the Holiday Bowl. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

This is not the way UCLA would have wanted Qwuantrezz Knight’s career to end. Instead of leading the Bruins onto the field at Petco Park against No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday in the Holiday Bowl, UCLA’s leading tackler will be at home in isolation, the result of a positive coronavirus test.

Without the dynamic defensive back, UCLA’s depth will be tested in its first postseason appearance since 2017. In addition to Knight, starting nose tackle Otito Ogbonnia announced he will sit out of the bowl while nursing an injury and preparing for the NFL draft. Tyler Manoa, a candidate to slot into Ogbonnia’s position, was not seen on the practice field Friday, the day the team departed for San Diego.

The Bruins (8-4) are holding their breath for the next four days pending results from additional tests before the game that could knock a player out at the last minute.

The threat of changing course quickly isn’t new to UCLA. That’s life during a pandemic. The Bruins didn’t cancel any games because of a COVID-19 outbreak, but still had to play a game without their starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who missed a start because of contact tracing.

While UCLA’s testing protocol scaled back from daily testing to once a week this year with widespread vaccinations, Knight was tested before his other teammates this week because he was symptomatic, coach Chip Kelly said Wednesday. Knight, who announced his diagnosis Tuesday night, was “feeling better” when Kelly talked to him Wednesday morning.

Not only will UCLA be without its star defensive player who leads the team with 61 tackles and 7 1/2 tackles for loss, but also Knight’s positive test provides an unceremonious ending to the sixth-year player’s college career. His passion and leadership helped establish a new culture in Westwood after he transferred from Kent State.

“He embodies what you want in a player,” Kelly said. “His energy, his enthusiasm, his leadership is one of the many qualities that he has. It's not just leadership. I think sometimes when they talk Q Knight, they're like 'Ah, leadership.' There's more to him: he's a good football player.”

Redshirt junior Martell Irby likely will take over as the starting nickelback as he returns to his hometown of San Diego, where Irby played both offense and defense for Morse High’s football team and lettered in basketball and track and field.

UCLA defensive lineman Jay Toia reacts during a win over Washington in October.
UCLA defensive lineman Jay Toia reacts during a win over Washington in October. Toia should see plenty of playing time against N.C. State. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

His athletic versatility was ideal for UCLA. Recruited as a running back, Irby made an immediate impact on special teams as a freshman and came into the backfield off the bench before moving to defensive back this year. He has 25 tackles and 4 1/2 tackles for loss.

“Martell just loves playing football,” Kelly said. “He's just transitioning into, really, where we needed him the most moving over to defense, and he had no hesitation. He'll just [say] 'Hey, whatever you need, coach.' And that's the type of player he is.”

Without Ogbonnia, freshman Jay Toia jumped to the starting spot in the unofficial depth chart at nose tackle. The 6-foot-3, 325-pound USC transfer has played in 12 games with seven tackles this year. He surpassed Manoa, a senior with 11 appearances this year, on the depth chart.

Even at full strength, the Bruins disappointed on defense this year. They ranked last in the Pac-12 and 111st nationally in passing yards allowed with 206.2 per game.

The matchup could have N.C. State’s record-setting quarterback Devin Leary primed for a big performance.

In his first year as the full-time starter, Leary made program history with 35 passing touchdowns. With 3,433 passing yards and only five interceptions, Leary is just one of three ACC quarterbacks to pass for 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns in a season, joining Pittsburgh’s 2021 Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett and Jameis Winston at Florida State in 2013.

Leary plays behind first-team All-American tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who is a finalist for the Outland Trophy given to the nation’s best offensive lineman.

Defensive line coach hired

UCLA filled its defensive line vacancy with Chad Kauha'aha'a on Friday, adding the former Nevada Las Vegas assistant to replace Johnny Nansen, who was hired as defensive coordinator at Arizona.

A 15-year college coaching veteran, Kauha'aha'a has coached defensive line at nine colleges, including Pac-12 stops at his alma mater Utah (2011-12), Oregon State (2015-17) and USC. He coached the Trojans in 2019 before jumping to UNLV for the last two years.

As with recently hired outside linebackers coach Ikaika Malloe, Kauha'aha'a will work as an analyst for the Bruins through the Holiday Bowl.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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