Silverado football coach Andy Ostolaza was coaching against Liberty when he saw a sophomore offensive lineman whose size dwarfed others on the field, but a player who used as much skill as muscle to dominate.
That lineman, Justin Polu, transferred to Silverado after that 2012 season, and Ostolaza saw in their two years together someone who was always available in practice and in games, continually improved and became one of the valley’s top players.
“This is my 24th year,” Ostolaza said. “You don’t come across a Justin Polu very often in your career. He was such a natural kid for being so big. He never walked off the field for us. He played both sides of the ball the entire time, and probably the biggest thing from him, you never heard from him. Whatever you told him to do, he was doing it, but he also carried that presence that the rest of the kids gravitated toward.
“He’s one of those kids you knew was going to excel on the high school level.”
Polu also has been doing the same on the college level as he enters his senior season at UNLV. He was the only Rebel named preseason All-Mountain West.
“He’s a guy since I’ve been here that’s gotten a little bit better every single day, every single day,” said second-year UNLV offensive line coach Garin Justice, also the offensive coordinator. “He’s the same person all the time. You know what you’re always getting, and he’s consistently good.”
Polu (6 feet 4 inches, 335 pounds) has started all 36 games at right guard over the past three seasons, and he was similarly always ready to take the field in high school.
Avoiding a major injury such as a torn ACL has been a big part of being constantly available. But it’s not like Polu has practiced and played without pain, especially on the offensive line where a physical pounding is part of the job description.
“There are a lot of lingering little (injuries) that keep good players off the field, but they don’t keep great players off the field,” Rebels coach Tony Sanchez said.
Polu said he couldn’t let down his teammates by taking time off.
“I’m out here grinding with them,” he said. “I feel like it’s right to give them my all. No matter what it is, if it’s an ankle problem or a shoulder problem, I know I can push through it.”
It’s one thing to show up.
It’s another to produce.
Polu has done just that, first in high school as a consensus three-star recruit. He chose the Rebels over Mountain West rival Colorado State, becoming in January 2015 one of Sanchez’s first commitments.
After redshirting in 2015, Polu then not only started every game over the next three seasons, he became a force. He didn’t allow a sack in 2016, and by last season he earned honorable-mention all-conference.
”I think the next step he needs to take is being physically dominant,” Justice said. “Not good. Not just blocking your guy. Now let’s have an effect. Let’s get more pancakes (blocks) and finish guys the way we need to. Once you do that, that’s when people can look at film and fear you. Now they look at his film and say, ‘This is a really good, solid football player.’ I want them to look at his film and say, ‘This is a dominant football player.”