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Everything Nico Iamaleava Said Before His First Career Start

Nico Iamaleava
Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava with Joe Milton III at practice in Knoxville. Photo by Rocky Top Insider/Ric Butler.

Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava met with the Knoxville media following the Vols’ Thursday practice in Orlando ahead of the Citrus Bowl.

After playing sparingly in four games during the regular season, Iamaleava is making his first career start in the Citrus Bowl matchup against No. 17 Iowa.

Expectations and hype are sky high around the five-star quarterback who ranked as a top five recruit nationally in the 2023 recruiting cycle. While he attempted just 27 passes during the regular season, Iamaleava performed well in his limited opportunities.

But a full game is a different task, particularly against a stout Hawkeyes defense which ranked as one of the best in the Big 10. Iamaleava discussed when he heard he was starting, Iowa’s defense and much more on Thursday. Here’s everything he said.

More From RTI: How Other Tennessee Freshmen Quarterbacks Have Fared In Bowl Starts

On how different his preparation and mindset will be going into Monday’s game as Tennessee’s starting quarterback

“I don’t think it’s changed too much. I’ve taken every week like I go in the game as a starter, just in the back of my head, getting reps. Anything could happen with Joe. So I think I’ve pretty much gone to every game with the same mindset and process.”

On his excitement level as Tennessee’s starter but also preparing to face a highly ranked Iowa defense

“It should be good, man, my first start going against the top-five defense. I’m ready for the challenge and I’m ready to go out there and compete with my brothers.”

On how beneficial his relationship with Joe Milton III has been since he arrived on campus last December

“Huge, man. This whole season Joe took me under his wing and I’ve learned so much from Joe. You guys don’t even know. So I’m just still having him here with this bowl prep and having him out here in Orlando with us has been, it’s been fun.”

On how much Tennessee’s tempo offense has slowed down for him since last spring

“A lot, man. I think it was just me learning the playbook first. And I knew everything was going to slow down as soon as I got the offense down, so I think going into spring, the game will be different than last spring for sure.”

On how he feels his game has grown in the year that he’s been at Tennessee

“Really just as a quarterback, as a man, I think I’ve grown huge over this past season. I got a lot of cool guys in the room to help me out, with Coach Heup, Coach Joey (Halzle), Coach Mitch (Militello). So I’m really just been appreciative of the support they’ve gave me and, yeah, I’ve grown in so many ways.”

On how important it was for him to have a freshman season that allowed him to sit back and learn as Tennessee’s backup quarterback 

“Huge, man. Going into the season, just having Joe, I knew I was going to be able to learn a lot. Learn how to be a college football player, learn how to be a pro. So it was huge for me to learn under Joe this year.”

On how much leadership he feels like he has to take as Tennessee’s starting quarterback

“I think as a quarterback you got to come with everything. Quarterback comes with leadership, quarterback comes with playing well, so going into the game, I think I’ve always tried to lead as a quarterback. That’s what you got to do as the leader of the team.”

On how much confidence he gains with a senior in Cooper Mays at center

“A lot of confidence. I got a lot of confidence in all my guys out there. But Coop coming back and playing this game with me is huge.”

On how his teammates have responded to him taking over as Tennessee’s starting quarterback

“I think they responded well when Coach Heup told them. And I’ve tried to be good with all the guys during my time here. So I think I’ve built good relationships with all the guys throughout the season.”

On when he found out he was going to be the starter 

“Right when we got into bowl prep, around Christmas time. Around that time.”

On the sensation and excitement he felt when he found out

“I was excited, man. I finally get the get to go out there and showcase my talents as a starter. So it should be fun.”

On some areas in which he’s improved during his freshman season

“I think just seeing defenses better. That was a huge thing for me. I really wanted to learn the coverages and just break down defenses. I think in high school, I let a lot of my skill and talent take over. But I got to this level and really just learning defenses and where bodies are going has been huge for me.” 

On how he’d describe his game, how it compares to former Alabama QB Bryce Young

“I love watching Bryce. I think I got a little bit of his game. I think I got a little bit of Joe’s (Milton) game. I think just overall I feel like I can do everything on the field.”

On his practice time with backup Tennessee receivers stepping into bigger roles as well

“Good. I get a lot of practice reps in with a lot of the guys. Kaleb (Webb), Chas (Nimrod), Squirrel (White), so them stepping up I think they’re ready. They’ve been ready to take on this role.”

On the advantage of having multiple weeks to prepare as the starter

“I think it’s a big advantage. You’re just itching to play at this point just because we’ve been off for so long. But I think it’s definitely a huge advantage. You see it every day and I think it’ll help you dissect stuff better.”

On what he’s seen from the Iowa defense on film

“They’re very  disciplined and they make tackles in the open field. I think there’s just a very disciplined team that does their job well from starting up front, going to their back end. I think they all do their job well.”

On what makes Joe Milton an easy guy to learn from

“Joe’s just, he’s an open book, man. I can ask him anything and he has no problem with giving me the answer. He has been there for me since day one, so I really appreciate Joe.”

On how important Bru McCoy returning for one more season would be for him

“I’m trying to get Bru back. It’s huge, man. I think a guy like that coming back, he’ll be the leader of the receiver room— we’ll be a little young next year, so just him coming back would be huge for me and I’m working on it.”

On if he sees the Citrus Bowl as a potential vault into next season

“Yeah, definitely. Coach Heup always says this is the beginning of our 2024 season, so just going into this game, I think everybody’s looking at it really as the first game of our year. So yeah, this has been huge, man. And we’re looking forward to 2024.”

On the challenges of shaking off mistakes early in his career

“I think it’s very easy. I’ve always been a guy to— next play type of guy, so I know I’m going to go out there and make, I hope I don’t make any mistakes, but if it comes, it comes and I have to have a next play mentality and get my guys ready for that win.”

On his family’s reaction to the news that he was starting

“My parents were just excited to see me go out there and play. I think a lot of my brothers and my sisters are excited too, so they were just all excited and happy to see me play.”

On if he’s put weight on during the season

“I’ve been able to put some good weight on.I think I put on I think 15 (pounds) since I’ve been here, so I’ve been able to put some good weight on.”

On what his diet has looked like trying to put on weight

“Protein shakes every day. You got to drink them. So, PB and J at night and that’s pretty much been it.”

On what he’s most looking forward to showing in the Citrus Bowl

“I’m just looking forward to going out there and getting a win, man. That’s really all I’m looking forward to. However it comes. As long as we come out with a win, I think it’ll be fun.”

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