It was like he never left, because he never did.
After going down with a lower body injury in North Carolina’s second game of the season, senior offensive lineman Nick Polino missed six games — but he wasn’t missing from the Tar Heel program.
“I mean, he's coaching guys on the sideline,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “He's involved in drills … he's as active in meetings as he was before and the only thing that was missing from Polino was the fact that he wasn't active out there in practice because of the injury.”
The loss of Polino was a big deal for a Carolina offensive line that had just one other upperclassman in Charlie Heck, struggling to find continuity over the next few weeks as Brian Anderson took over at center, while the Tar Heels eventually replaced starting left guard Ed Montilus with Joshua Ezeudu.
Understanding the inexperience of the line, Polino wanted to do whatever he could to help his teammates hold things together, hopeful he’d be able to return later in the season.
Sure, film sessions and coaches could offer guidance and advice, but Polino was right there on the sidelines, watching with a keen eye on the unit. He made a point of talking to guys as they came off the field, telling them what he was seeing and giving his guys the senior leadership they lacked without him out there.
That’s not to say it was easy, watching from so close with no chance of helping spring that big run or hold the key block that would have led to a game-wining touchdown pass.
“Sitting there watching my guys take Clemson down to the wire, getting the Victory Bell from Duke, obviously, from my point of view, I want to be out there,” Polino said. “That’s kind of the battle you have to do.”
Longo pointed out the challenge of staying involved and focused after an injury. It’s easy for a player to feel like they’re no longer part of the team when they’re sidelined for a while, but that wasn’t the case for Polino.
“I don't think Coach (Stacy) Searels would tell you, or I would tell you, or Coach Brown would tell you that there was any other difference in the way he prepared and the way he helped lead the team…,” Longo said.
And he hasn’t been the only one, as Longo pointed out injured backup quarterback Jace Ruder has done the same.
“It's a tribute to our locker room and our players and Nick and Jace and some of the others that had been injured that had done a great job maintaining the role that we expect and doing the things that we wanted to do all week,” he said.
Finally healthy after surgery and rehab, Polino made his return in Carolina’s loss to Virginia, and instead of taking over at center, he returned to his old spot at guard, beside his former understudy Anderson.
Having helped coach him up during his absence, it’s definitely something he can be proud of.
“Brian’s done great,” he said. “I’ve always said, ‘He’s going to go out there and he’s going to give it everything he’s got.’ It’s a tough position to come into… it’s something mentally that can be a little bit of a curve ball but he handled it well. He’s been playing really good ball; he’s smart, he’s just a tough kid.”
As for himself, Polino likely won’t start on Thursday night vs. Pittsburgh as he works to get back to full speed, but he’ll see plenty of action.
With three scheduled games remaining as a Tar Heel, he’s willing to do anything to earn a fourth.
“Wherever they want me to play, that’s where I’ll go,” he said. “That’s all I’m really focused on right now, is just helping the team out to whatever capacity I can. I’ve got to make up for a little bit of lost time, so whatever I can do to help the guys the next couple of games, I’m going to do it.”