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Polu key to Rebels’ powerful running game

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UNLV running back Lexington Thomas (3) celebrates with offensive lineman Justin Polu (78) after scoring a touchdown against New Mexico during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Albuquerque, N.M., Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Justin Polu got out of bed two weeks ago and knew immediately that something was wrong.

He felt debilitating pain in his right foot, and that was bad news for UNLV. The Rebels are a run-first offense, and Polu, a powerful 6-foot-4, 325-pound right guard, is key to opening up rushing lanes for the team’s stable of ball carriers. Without Polu dominating the line of scrimmage, UNLV’s running game would not quite be the same.

Luckily, Polu recognized the pain as a flare-up of gout, a form of arthritis that attacks joints (especially in the lower extremities). Gout runs in Polu’s family and he had dealt with it twice before during his UNLV career, so he understood it was treatable.

“One day when I woke up, right when I stepped out of bed it triggered,” Polu said. “It runs in my family. I just knew. So I just got into the treatment room, got my meds. My foot is fine now.”

Gout can be brought on by consuming foods and beverages that force the body to produce an excess of uric acid. Red meat, seafood and fructose are common causes.

Polu missed several days of training camp while waiting for the pain and swelling to dissipate, but he’s back to full participation now.

After Tuesday’s practice at Rebel Park, head coach Tony Sanchez said the team will work with Polu going forward to minimize the risk of another gout attack.

“Gout is a tough deal, especially at that age,” Sanchez said. “If anybody has ever had it, it’s the most debilitating thing. I’ve actually had a flare-up once and it’s not comfortable. He’s fine. He’s OK. Gout is one of those things that comes and it goes. You’ve just got to make sure that you lower the uric acid levels in your body and you’re taking care of that stuff. We’re on it now and it shouldn’t happen again.”

With Polu at full strength, UNLV once again figures to field one of the best offensive lines in the Mountain West. The Rebels averaged 240.2 rushing yards per game in 2017, which ranked 18th in the nation. In 2016 the team averaged 241.5 yards per game, which was 16th in the nation.

Polu, a redshirt junior from Silverado, has started all 24 games during his Rebels career.

He expects the UNLV blockers to put together another strong campaign.

“I think the O-line is doing a great job of moving around and hustling to the ball right now,” Polu said. “Everyone has pretty much got the plays down, now it’s down to the little details and hand placements, hat placements, stuff like that. We’ve got a good group of guys, we’ve got good depth. It’s going to be a great year.”

Sanchez thinks Polu is still getting better and believes the lineman can reach another level if he becomes more consistent.

“He’s gotten a couple years of game experience under his belt now and he has a chance to be an elite player,” Sanchez said. “I’ve coached guys who have been a top-10 pick in the NFL at offensive line in my career, and I look at [Polu] and I don’t know if he’s that, but he’s a guy who has a chance to play on Sundays if he stays committed and stays focused. He’s got really good feet, he’s strong, he’s powerful, he’s learning how to work every single day.”

Polu said he is cutting back on red meat and working with the team’s training staff to make sure he stays on the field this season.

“I changed a few things in my diet and took some meds for it and it went away,” Polu said. “I’m keeping away from stuff like red meat. The nutrition staff is helping me out. It should be fine.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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