Georgia Bulldogs wary of COVID, grapple with defensive staff shuffling in run-up to Orange Bowl

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(WSAV) – Bowl games – even ones that are played for a National Championship trip – are supposed to be rewards for a well-played season, replete with steak dinners and swag bags and team outings leading up to the day of the game.

However, the Omicron variant has turned these outings into a potential stumbling block for the Georgia Bulldogs, who are set to take on the Michigan Wolverines in Friday’s Orange Bowl.

With backup quarterback J.T. Daniels testing positive for COVID last week and the Omicron variant forcing the cancellation of several bowl games, the Dawgs are taking every possible precaution to ensure that the virus will not further impact the team.

“We’ve got masks on. We’re trying to stay away,” said inside linebacker Nakobe Dean. “We’re trying to stay safe from this new variant out here, so for the most part, we’re just staying around each other in the player lounge and just chilling on our free time.”

“Definitely we’re excited to be in Miami and everything, but as we all know, it’s a hotspot for COVID,” said defensive tackle Jordan Davis. “We just have to make sure that we protect ourselves and wear our masks and just enjoy the moment. Obviously bowl week is a great time for team chemistry and getting to know another each other a little bit better than we already do.”

Daniels and fellow wide receiver George Pickens, who was briefly in COVID protocols last week, have arrived in Miami and are expected to be available for the Orange Bowl, per multiple reports.

Meanwhile, even though the Dawgs are at relatively full strength and enjoying those Orange Bowl outings – including eating dinner on a boat Sunday – they remain wary of any COVID outbreak that could derail their mission for a national championship.

“I give our players a lot of credit for how diligent they’ve been on taking proper precautions, whether it be wearing the masks through the hotel or when they’re out and about,” said defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. “But we came here to win a football game. We’re excited about everything that the Orange
Bowl does for our players, but there’s no secret what we came here for.”

If the Bulldogs are going to get what they came to Miami for – a win over Michigan, the exorcism of some demons from the SEC Championship Game, a chance at the program’s first title since 1980 – they’re going to need to overcome some re-shuffling on the defensive brain trust.

Lanning, who has accepted the head coaching job at Oregon, will still coach on the Dawgs’ staff until the end of the season. Even though senior analyst Will Muschamp and inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann are technically co-interim defensive coordinators, Lanning showed up for the defensive coordinator interview slot on Monday morning.

“I’ll still be making the calls, but every single one of our defensive coaches have been extremely involved throughout the week, throughout our preparation, and this has been a team effort. It’s been a team effort all season.”

Of course, things are not necessarily business as usual when the defensive coordinator has a playoff game to prepare for with one team and a coaching staff to build on another, especially since that other team is on the opposite side of the country.

Lanning says that he sees the time zone difference as a positive; he focuses on his duties as Dawgs defensive coordinator during the day and handles his Oregon-related business in the evening, when it is still business hours on the West Coast.

Although the time difference allows for everything to get done, it makes for some late nights.

“You know, I don’t clock in and clock out,” Lanning said. “We work until the work is done.”

During his interview, Lanning revealed that he would still be calling plays for the defense, citing a desire to keep things as normal as possible.

“Nothing is really going to change from the way we operate. Luckily with bowl prep there is a lot more time. There is a lot of time to be able to get ready, and I think a lot of times people make the mistake of trying to do too much in a shortened window,” Lanning said.

Focusing on the fundamentals. Staying disciplined on defense. Adhering to the COVID protocols.

Amid all the turmoil surrounding the Dawgs, the key to victory on Friday might just be doing what they’ve done all year long, only with much higher stakes.

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