Advertise with usContact UsRTI Team

Playing With Pressure? ESPN Expert Details Tennessee Quarterback’s First Big Season

Nico Iamaleava
ORLANDO, FL – January 01, 2024 – Quarterback Nico Iamaleava #8 and Head Coach Josh Heupel of the Tennessee Volunteers during the 2023 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Tennessee Volunteers at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

The story of Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava is certainly a fascinating one – and it hasn’t even reached a fever pitch quite yet.

A tremendous quarterback prospect from Southern California, Iamaleava worked his way up to the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2023 according to On3 Sports. Iamaleava committed to Tennessee in March 2022, early in the 2023 recruiting cycle, and gave head coach Josh Heupel a true generational prospect to build the class around.

After a full season of sitting behind starting quarterback Joe Milton III, Iamaleava found his first start in the Citrus Bowl against Iowa with Milton opting out for NFL Draft prep. Iamaleava dazzled against the Hawkeyes to the tune of four total touchdowns (three rushing, one passing) and led Tennessee to a 35-0 win in Orlando.

Iamaleava was also reportedly one of the initial factors in the NCAA’s investigation recent into Tennessee, prompting the state of Tennessee and the Commonwealth of Virginia to file an ongoing lawsuit against the NCAA in response.

All of that combines for one of the most interesting lead-ups for a player in Tennessee history as the former five-star prospect gears up for his first season as the Vols’ starting signal caller.

Iamaleava will take the field for Tennessee’s season opener with a somewhat retooled arsenal of weapons to work with. Instead of Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright, Iamaleava will lean on Dylan Sampson and Cam Seldon for the running back position. Tennessee did lose both tight ends in Jacob Warren and McCallan Castles (the latter of whom caught both of Iammaleava’s freshman season passing touchdowns) but will roll out transfer Holden Staes and highly-touted prospect Ethan Davis.

Tennessee also returns a trio of starting receivers in Squirrel White, Bru McCoy, and Dont’e Thornton but added five-star freshman Mike Matthews and Tulane transfer Chris Brazzell to the mix, as well.

Iamaleava also got some help on the offensive line with LSU transfer offensive tackle Lance Heard.

With all the storylines and the buzz around Iamaleava taking over for Tennessee, particularly after a so-so season from Milton, ESPN college football expert Chris Low is picking Iamaleava as his player with the most to prove in 2024.

“The good news for Iamaleava is that he certainly appears to have all the tools to be a difference-maker at quarterback and accounted for four touchdowns in his first start last season in Tennessee’s 35-0 victory over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl,” Low wrote for ESPN. “But from the time Iamaleava signed with the Vols, he’s been under a bright spotlight — from the reported $8 million NIL deal he signed, to being hailed as the quarterback that would vault the Vols back into championship contention, to being at the center of the recent NCAA investigation into Tennessee’s program. No player since Peyton Manning has walked onto Tennessee’s campus with this much pressure to perform at an elite level.”

More from RTI: Matthews? Heard? McCoy? Who is Tennessee’s Most Important Newcomer in 2024

Including Low, five ESPN analysts picked their player under the same title: Wisconsin QB Tyler Van Dyke, Clemson QB Cade Klubnik, Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava, Oregon QB Dillon Gabriel, and LSU OLB Harold Perkins Jr.

While not saying that Iamaleava isn’t a fair pick because of all the added off-the-field buzz and pressure, it is interesting to compare the Tennessee quarterback to the other four players, mainly the three other quarterbacks.

Van Dyke is a former ACC Rookie of the Year in 2021, Clubnik started the entire 2023 season for Clemson, and Gabriel threw for the seventh-most picks in all of college football last season. Iamaleava, on the other hand, has 45 career passing attempts to his name.

Fair or not, Iamaleava does have pressure on his shoulders. As Low wrote, he does have something to prove in 2024. But the former five-star California gunslinger didn’t shy away from the Citrus Bowl and doesn’t look to be shying away from the challenge ahead in 2024.

In fact, based on the showing against Iowa, Nico Iamaleava looks poised to take the next step as the Vols’ starting quarterback in an increasingly difficult SEC world.

Similar Articles


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tweet Us