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Rebels’ new-look offensive line getting head start in spring practice

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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)

UNLV had one of the nation's most effective rushing attacks last season, ranking 19th in yards per game (230.7) and 18th in yards per carry (5.3). It was the second straight year that the Rebels finished in the top 20 in both categories, a testament to head coach Tony Sanchez's commitment to the running game.

It was also a testament to offensive line coach John Garrison, who had served under Sanchez for all three of his years at UNLV. And while Garrison left in the offseason to assume the same position at Florida Atlantic, the Rebels are still planning to build their offense around the ground game in 2018.

One week into spring practice, the offensive line looks strong again, led by junior guard Justin Polu, a three-year starter and potential All-Mountain West selection. And with senior running back Lexington Thomas (1,336 yards, 17 touchdowns in 2017) heading the backfield, the Rebels will go as far as their blocking takes them.

New offensive line coach Garin Justice — formerly of Florida Atlantic, coincidentally — has been tasked with keeping the machine running. And while Justice won't be making wholesale changes, Sanchez trusts the new coach to put his own spin on things.

"Garin's a really good coach," Sanchez said. "You've got to let your [coaches] do it their way, their style. Obviously within our scheme and what we're doing, but he's brought some really good ideas and we've incorporated some of those into our offense."

The 6-foot-4, 325-pound Polu figures to be the pillar of the line this season, but there's plenty of talent around him. Senior tackle Nathan Jacobson was impressive last year in a utility role, and junior center Sid Acosta was slated to start before a knee injury derailed his season. Senior Zack Singer played admirably after taking over for Acosta, and redshirt freshman Ashton Morgan has also earned praise from Sanchez for his play in the spring.

Whether opening holes for Thomas or keeping a clean, spacious pocket for quarterback Armani Rogers, the Rebels need to be able to rely on their line.

Polu said the spring sessions have been helpful in learning Justice's system.

"Everything is going pretty smooth," Polu said. "It's just basically technique stuff and working on footwork. It's pretty much similar to coach Garrison, but with some little things and new terminology that we use."

Tinkering with something that has been working as well as UNLV's running game may not sound like a good idea, but there's an adage in football that has become a favorite of contemporary coaches: If you're staying the same, you're getting worse.

So the Rebels will take the spring to integrate Justice's coaching style, learn his scheme, and then hopefully get better as an offensive line when the 2018 season kicks off.

"We're allowing him to bring in things that will make us look better," Sanchez said. "We don't want to be the same every year, and I think his attention to detail, he's a little bit different than our last coach at that position. They're both really good coaches, but he just approaches it a little bit differently and I think it has been a good deal for the guys."

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

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