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Tennessee’s Nico Iamaleava Garnering Praise In One Specific Area This Off-Season

Nico Iamaleava
Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava began his collegiate on-field career with an impressive performance in the Citrus Bowl against Iowa to close down the 2023 season. While the freshman quarterback did play in some backup opportunities behind Joe Milton throughout the year, the bowl game was Iamaleava’s first big chance to shine – and he did.

Iamaleava showed off his mobility with three rushing touchdowns and added in a passing touchdown to tight end McCallan Castles against the Hawkeyes’ defense. Despite it being his first game as the starter, Iamaleava looked comfortable, poised, and confident as he operated Josh Heupel’s offense behind a banged-up offensive line. That’s not an aspect to be overlooked, either. As poised as Iamaleava looked leading Tennessee to a shutout win, not every high-profile player enjoys that sort of composure off the bat.

Iamaleava has all the on-field traits to be a superstar quarterback for the Vols. But another important aspect of success is the leadership quality. Hendon Hooker helped set the culture as the Vols’ starter in Josh Heupel’s first two years, which longtime veteran Joe Milton then carried on. But now Iamaleava will face the task of leading the team as just a sophomore.

While there have been good things said about his play on the practice field, there’s been a noticeable number of players and teammates specifically mentioning Iamaleava’s leadership skills.

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said on Thursday night that Iamaleava is “continuing to grow in his leadership role” and liked his quarterback’s “competitive composure” and “demeanor in general” during the Vols’ second spring scrimmage that night in Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle spent a good chunk of time talking about Iamaleava’s leadership characteristics at the start of spring camp.

“He’s one of those guys that has that natural aura about him where people gravitate to him and listen to what he says,” Halzle said. “It’s a little bit outside of his comfort zone to try to step out and get on somebody, which isn’t really his makeup, which is fine. There is not one way to do it. When he talks, guys listen. That’s the best compliment you can say about somebody. When you talk, the guys stop talking and listen to what he has to say.”

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As a five-star quarterback in the class of 2023 and On3 Sports’ top overall recruit in the cycle, Iamaleava isn’t unfamiliar with tough questions and the bright lights of the media. It takes an added level of maturity to have that sort of responsibility in the college football landscape, after all. But even with a whirlwind of attention his way from the media in front of the cameras, Iamaleava is just looking to be a consistent player to his teammates each and every day.

“Still being myself,” Iamaleava replied when asked how he handles his increased leadership role this season. “I’ve been trying to work on being more vocal for the guys, speaking out when I need to. But I think just being myself out there, hanging out with the guys, and just making sure we’re getting our business done. But I think I’m just growing more in the vocal aspect of it, just being louder for the guys is what I’ve really been trying to work on.”

Tennessee wide receivers coach Kelsey Pope said that Iamaleava has “taken the bull by the horns” when it comes to work with his wide receivers, even mentioning that Iamaleava will get to the receiver on a missed ball before any coach can and try to work out what went wrong and how it can be corrected.

“I’d say the biggest point of growth from Nico would be just him being more of a vocal leader,” said second-year receiver Dont’e Thornton earlier this week. “Last year he wasn’t as vocal, because of course you’ve got Joe there, so he didn’t really have to step into that leadership role.”

Thornton went on to echo Pope’s words, saying that during plays in which Iamaleava may miss a receiver down the field, the Vols’ quarterback is quick to meet up with his receivers to let them know that he will be more attentive to that direction the next time the play is run.

Nico Iamaleava has the traits on the football field to be a successful quarterback. And while it’s not as though he didn’t have those leadership qualities during his first year, Iamaleava’s newfound vocal prowess is one of the most beneficial pieces of news to come out of the Vols’ spring camp. It might not be the most exciting news, but it’s an important step in leading the Vols to their first playoffs in 2024.

Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for more Tennessee football spring camp coverage.

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