The California-to-California connection was alive and well on Saturday afternoon in Knoxville.
With about seven and a half minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Vols’ game against UConn, quarterback Nico Iamaleava, a native of Long Beach, California, threw a touchdown to tight end McCallan Castles, a native of South Lake Tahoe, California.
“Just California boys,” Castles said of himself and Iamaleava on Monday in Knoxville. “We talk about it all the time. You know, that’s my guy, so for him to throw it to me, that’s pretty cool.”
While their roads to Knoxville were quite different, both have been putting in the work during their first season with the Tennessee football team.
Castles transferred to Tennessee this past offseason after spending the first two years of his career at Cal before transferring to UC Davis for his next three seasons. Playing in front of SEC competition and proving that he belongs at the high level of college football were both important factors in making his decision to play on Rocky Top.
Iamaleava, on the other hand, committed to Tennessee in the spring of 2022 and landed as the Vols’ third highest-rated commit all-time. The California quarterback enrolled early and has been with the program since winter Orange Bowl practices last season. Iamaleava has seen some playing time in clean-up roles for Tennessee this season but is inevitably in line to take the keys to Tennessee’s offense next season as Joe Milton finishes his college career.
Iamaleava finished his short time in the game with five completions of nine attempts for 86 yards and a touchdown. The freshman quarterback also added one nice run of 25 yards to show his ability to scramble out of the pocket when pressure comes.
“Just for him to go out there and kill it the way he did was awesome to see,” Castles said of Iamaleava. “Especially because at practice, I get most of my reps with him every day. It kind of just felt second nature and he was spinning the ball out there. For me to catch [Iamaleava’s touchdown] was a big deal.”
The touchdown pass from Iamaleava to Castles was the first of the young quarterback’s career and the third of Castles’ season. And it was certainly a memorable one for both players.
“I kept the gloves and had (Nico) sign them today,” Castles revealed on Monday with a laugh. “So those will probably be hanging up in my house after his career here. So, pretty cool.”
Despite coming to Tennessee as On3 Sports’ top-rated prospect in the class of 2023, Iamaleava has had to patiently wait his turn behind experienced veteran Joe Milton III, who has led Tennessee to a 7-2 record through the first nine games of his first full season starting on Rocky Top. That seemingly hasn’t been a problem, though, as players and coaches continue to rave about Iamaleava’s desire to learn from the older players and continue work on his craft.
“He’s never complained about not being able to get into games when there’s a couple games we should’ve taken care of business and he would’ve gotten drives in, he’s never complained about that,” Castles said of Iamaleava. “He just shows up and does the work and he’s always super humble about it. So to see him have success, everyone understands the work he’s put into it.”