Friday, Aug. 16, 2019 | 2 a.m.
For years, Justin Polu has been one of UNLV’s most productive and reliable players, consistently setting a high bar for the rest of the offensive line. Now a senior, the four-year starter at right guard is set to take on added responsibility as the leader of what could be the Rebels’ best position group.
After Thursday’s training camp practice, head coach Tony Sanchez said the Rebels plan to lean on Polu’s blocking to provide stability to the offense.
“You need leadership, you need poise and you need consistency,” Sanchez said. “He’s a guy we’re depending on to just kind of own his spot. That should be a spot we don’t have to worry about.”
Polu has been the model of consistency during his time at UNLV. He has started all 36 games in his college career, and he was an All-Mountain West honorable mention selection last year. At 6-foot-4, 335 pounds, he has been a force in the running game, helping to open holes for rushing attacks that have ranked No. 21, No. 19 and No. 16 nationally the last three seasons.
Though soft-spoken by nature, Sanchez believes Polu is ready to take command of an offensive line that returns five starters in 2019.
“You know Justin, he’s a quiet guy and he’s got that soft smile, but man he’s a good football player,” Sanchez said. “Now he’s an older, veteran guy, and he’s so workmanlike when he comes to practice and in his demeanor with everybody. He’s been as consistent as anybody we’ve had over the years.”
True to his nature, Polu doesn’t plan to lead with an iron fist, but rather with a helping hand.
“Being that I’m a veteran, I definitely feel as though I have to step into that leadership role,” Polu said. “I try not to boss people around or anything like that, just give them tips on stuff that can help us as a team, whether it’s a step, a pass set, a run block. Anything that can help the team.”
It’s an offensive line group that shouldn’t need to be whipped into shape. Sophomore left tackle Ashton Morgan, junior left guard Matt Brayton, senior center Sid Acosta and sophomore right tackle Justice Oluwaseun have game experience playing together and have brought that continuity into camp.
Polu thinks the offensive line is ahead of where it was at this time last year, when there was open competition at several spots and chemistry was a work in progress.
“We’re building a lot of chemistry between the first O-line,” Polu said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do in terms of fundamental stuff, but we’re clicking a lot better than last year.
“We want to be dominant in the run game for sure,” he continued, “just like we have been in the past. We’re going to keep that going. And we want to get Armani going, whether we’re pass blocking for him or opening holes for him.”
If the UNLV offense is to perform at its full potential this season, much of the onus will be on Polu and his charges on the line to make it happen.
Sanchez believes Polu has the talent and the attitude to reach that level — and beyond.
“I think he has a chance to be a dominant guy, if not the most dominant guy at his spot in the conference,” Sanchez said. “Every NFL scout out here, one of the questions they want to talk to me about is him, and there’s a reason for that.”