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Everything Josh Heupel Said After Arriving In Orlando For Citrus Bowl

Photo by Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee football arrived in Orlando on Tuesday for the 2024 Citrus Bowl matchup against Iowa. Third-year head coach Josh Heupel met with the media on Wednesday afternoon in Orlando to preview the matchup.

Heupel discussed Nico Iamaleava moving into the starting role, him returning to Orlando and much more. Here’s everything Josh Heupel said.

More From RTI: What Tennessee’s Defensive Back Rotation Will Look Like In Citrus Bowl

Opening Statement

“Thankful to the Florida Citrus Committee. They put on a great event. I’ve known that for a long time. Obviously, it culminates with a really big football game. We want our players to enjoy the city this week. When they’re in the football meetings and in practice, be engaged. That’ll be important for us to go out and play the way that we need to against a really good Iowa football team. I also want thank UCF, their administration, coaching staff, allowing us to use their facilities. It’s a first-class operation and a bunch of great people that have helped me along our way as well.”

On Tennessee’s transition from Joe Milton III to Nico Iamaleava at quarterback

“Joe’s been with us throughout bowl preparation, just as he was going through his process of how he was going to handle things at the end. Guys are excited to get an opportunity to play with Nico. They appreciate Joe, obviously for everything that he’s done. He has been a great teammate to everybody inside of that locker room. He’s been a great teammate to Nico as well. He’s been a part of the preparation. He’ll be with us all week long and continue to help us in that way.”

On what he likes about where Nico Iamaleava is early on in his career

“He’s smart, he’s competitive. When he makes a mistake — and young players are always going do that — he continues to learn and grow from. It doesn’t repeat it. He’s got the ability to reset from play to play, day to day. Extremely talented. Everybody has known that. But I love the way that he works inside of our building, and he’s got a great demeanor about him. But he’s great at communicating with his teammates as well.”

On how different Nice Iamaleava is from the player he recruited in high school and the player that arrived in Knoxville last December

“He’s continued to grow so much fundamentally, allowing him to play at this level. Continued to grow — consistency, fundamentals, decision making, being accurate with the football, in command of what we’re doing offensively. This will be his first opportunity to start against a really good defense, but excited to go play with him.”

On how he goes about setting expectations for Nico Iamaleava in his first career start at Tennessee

“This is going be his first start. At the end of the day, we’ve got to play well enough. He’s got to play well enough to help us go win this football game. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to accomplish. I said it to the guys earlier, it’s important anytime you have a young player — and I don’t care what position he’s playing — that the other 10 guys around him play at a really high level and do the ordinary things really consistently to allow that guy to function and operate at the level that he’s capable of. Listen, this game’s never perfect. We don’t expect Nico to go out and play perfect. Expect him to reset and give our playmakers an opportunity to go make plays.”

On how much Tennessee will lean on veterans like center Cooper Mays and others to help Nico Iamaleava and running back Cam Seldon, two freshmen 

“Well, that’s the nature of bowl season now, is that a lot of young guys that have played throughout the course of the season, not necessarily in the roles that they’re going to have an opportunity to play in during the bowl game itself. And so young guys got to step up and go take advantage of that opportunity. You can look back at the last couple of years and you can see the young guys that have stepped up in those roles when given the opportunity. This is his first opportunity to go out and start a football game, be in command of it, the week of preparation. Expect him to handle the week the right way and go out and play extremely well.”

On if he’s seen any change in Nico Iamaleava since becoming the starter, if he’s been more vocal or came out of his shell

“I think during the course of all offseason, throughout the course of the fall, as he’s gained command of what we’re doing, being able to communicate with wide receivers after a play, our offensive lineman, he does it in a way that they react and respond extremely well to him. So that’s just the part of growing into the player that you’re going to be. At the quarterback position, the first thing you have to do is learn your job and learn what’s going on around you. Then those leadership traits and communication traits start to come out.”

On Nico Iamaleava’s chemistry with Tennessee receivers

“During the course of the season, we get a lot of reps with our guys that would be considered twos. So he’s had a lot of growth throughout the course of the season during game preparation, but out on the practice field as well. During the bowl prep, we emphasize the young guys a lot early. We have some young wide receivers that have played a lot of football. Those guys were considered young. He’s gotten a lot of reps with those guys even before we got into the actual game prep. So he’s gotten a lot of work with those guys. It’s not an entire season of volume with them, but I anticipate those guys being on the same page.”

On the confidence in Gaston Moore being the backup due to his familiarity with the offense

“He’s functioned well during the course of the season, during spring ball, during training camp. He’s handled ball preparation extremely well. He’s got really good command of what we’re doing.”

On if the film matched up with the numbers in saying Iowa has a really good defense

“Yeah, it’s not just the numbers that say they got a really good defense. You can watch the film. They’re dialed in, they make you earn it. They don’t give up a bunch of big plays. That’s in the pass game and in the run game. They’re really good on third downs getting off the football field. They’ve created zero in negatives. They adjust during the course of the ball game extremely well to the things that they’re seeing. It’ll be important for us to go maximize our opportunities and create big plays. But you got to sustain drives in this one. So first and second down are really important not to be in third and long, and third down, you got to convert.”

On the development from the young secondary pieces after transfer losses

“It’s an opportunity for young guys to step into the roles that they want. They got to go take it. They’ve been really good in our bowl preparation. They’ve gotten a bunch of work as we started after the regular season ended, those guys have been in the fold the entire time. Excited to go see those guys play.”

On what he’s seen from Dylan Sampson that tells him he’s ready to take over the running back one spot

“DSamp, just the way he’s played throughout the course of the season and he’ll have more opportunities in this one. But he’s smart. He’s competitive. He’s a really good leader. He’s been dynamic when he’s had opportunities and the ball’s been in space. We’re going to need him to play and function there at a really high level.”

On freshman running back Cam Seldon’s development over the course of the season

“The way that we practice, he gets a lot of reps during the course of a normal game week. He’s continued to grow, understanding our schemes versus what we’re seeing front wise, how to press his aiming points, deliver double teams. He’s dynamic, he is strong, he’s physical. Excited to see him play, but see Khalifa (Keith) play as well.”

On the health of the offensive line

“A lot better than it was at the end of the regular season. But we’ll see as we continue to get to game time who’s actually ready to go play is.”

On no one in the SEC using the in helmet communication in bowl games, if they considered it with Nico playing

“When that decision was made we didn’t know Nico would be the starter. At this point, there’s a lot that’s been going on during the course of December and with everything that’s going on, just status quo a little bit as far as how we function, operate what was used on the sidelines, all that.”

On investigating whether using that system would fit Tennessee’s offense

“I think the operation of that, is it just the quarterback or does it involve your skill players too? You look at how really everybody communicates a majority of the football game— very few teams are all 11 guys in the huddle at one time.”

On if they anticipated Joe Milton playing in the Citrus Bowl during bowl practices in Knoxville

“We did early. We knew that there was a process that he was going go through. As we got into to game week, and when I say game week, the preparation post signing day or really right before it as we got into game planning mode Nico’s gotten a majority of the reps.”

On if Joe will be on the sideline during the game

“He will be. Yeah. He will.”

On what his conversation with Joe was like as he was weighing decision to play in the game

“Everybody’s got a different process, different factors are a part of the decision process. At the end of the day, we support him and what he wants to do, where he wants to go. He’s got a great football future in front of him. Excited to see that unfold on the back end of this game.”

On what it’s like to be back in Orlando, practicing at UCF

“Yeah. A lot of our staff too was here as well and their administration’s (UCF) been great  hosting us this week. A lot of great memories. Middle part of the week, we got a night where a bunch of former players are coming over to the hotel and will be awesome just to catch up with those guys.”

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