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‘Excited To Go Play With Him’: Heupel Discusses Nico Iamaleava Starting In Citrus Bowl

Nico Iamaleava throws first touchdown as a Tennessee Volunteer. Photographed by Jackson McCarter/Rocky Top Insider

Tennessee football begins a new era on Monday when freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava makes the first start of his collegiate career in the Vols’ Citrus Bowl matchup against Iowa.

The former five-star recruit No. 3 prep player in the country according to the 247sports composite rankings was already the presumed starter for Tennessee entering 2024 season but will now start the final game of the 2023 season after Joe Milton III announced his plans not to play in the bowl game.

Even playing in the Citrus Bowl, Iamaleava will earn a redshirt in his debut collegiate season. Playing off the bench in four regular season games, Iamaleava completed 16-of-26 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. Iamaleava will likely attempt as many passes in the Citrus Bowl as he did in the entirety of the regular season.

Meeting with the local media on Wednesday, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel discussed Iamaleava starting in the bowl game, his expectations for him and the challenges he will face. Here’s everything Heupel said about Iamaleava.

More From RTI: Three Tennessee Underclassmen To Watch For In The Citrus Bowl

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.”

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