Preseason shuffle at center a blessing in disguise as Brian Anderson takes over

Brant Wilkerson-New

After trying different combinations along the offensive line through spring practice and training camp, North Carolina had finally found what it wanted with senior Nick Polino moving over from left guard to center.

The senior had gotten off to a good start in his new position in the Tar Heels’ season-opener, and on Saturday night, they had run for 40 yards on eight carries when he had a Miami defender roll up on him from behind at the 4:51 mark in the first quarter.

Polino left with a lower body injury, and on Monday, it was confirmed that he would be out indefinitely.

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The Carolina offense had been rolling with Polino at center

“Nick was such a valuable player for us because he could play both guards and center,” Coach Mack Brown said. “You can just move him around, let him do anything. He knew everything and he's a great leader. So we’ve just got to get somebody else ready to go.”

In retrospect, the uncertainty that Carolina faced along the offensive line for the past six months might have been a blessing in disguise because in addition to Polino, both Brian Anderson and Ty Murray got significant practice reps at the position.

That wasn’t ideal at the time, as Polino lost some reps to his backups. Now, offensive coordinator Phil Longo sees the silver lining.

“The benefit to that right now is that there were three guys getting reps and now that Nick is not going to be with us for a while, we have two other guys who have gotten a lot of reps and a lot of snaps and a lot of work at the position, so it’s just next man up,” he said.

Anderson, a 6-2, 305-pound redshirt sophomore, came into this season with a different approach knowing that his time was coming after being behind Cam Dillard, Tommy Hatton and Jay-Jay McCargo on the depth chart.

“A big thing that’s really helped me is just taking practice reps more like game reps and trying to simulate myself like what it’d be like in the game, that way, once I got in the game there wasn’t so much nerves after the first couple of plays,” Anderson said. “It really just got to a point where I could get down and play ball.”

So far, that’s served him well this season as Anderson entered the South Carolina game in the third quarter after offensive line coach Stacy Searels thought Polino looked worn down.

All Anderson did with his first significant playing time was help the Tar Heels lead 98- and 95-yard scoring drives with the trio of running backs piling up 90 rushing yards while Anderson often dealt with the Gamecocks’ Javon Kinlaw, a 6-6, 310-pound future NFL Draft pick.

“That being my first big-time, primetime game ever playing in, that was a big confidence booster in myself,” Anderson said. “Especially going against a great defensive line in South Carolina.”

Carolina’s rushing attack took a step back immediately after Polino’s departure, ending up with -11 yards in the second and third quarters, before breaking out with 71 yards int the fourth quarter.

Overall, the Tar Heels ran for 81 yards on 24 carries (3.3 yards per carry) after Anderson took over for Polino.

The Tar Heels have confidence in Anderson and he’s proven what he can do on the field, but there’s just no replacing a fifth-year senior who had been the vocal leader of a group that Brown said doesn’t speak.

“Brian is a good player, it’s just we lose leadership with Nick, we lose a lot of confidence with Nick,” Brown said. “The fact that he’s seen anything in his five years, he can play guard or center; it really hurts us.”

Luckily for Anderson, Polino is still right there by his side in 5:30 a.m. meetings, offering his wealth of knowledge and experience just as he has all along.

“That’s something that really helped me out playing center because me and him kind of adjusted to the new offense together,” Anderson said. “Him just having the experience, getting looks from different defenses, him kind of teaching me different things that different defenses will give.”