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Tennessee’s Nico Iamaleava Garnering Hype Before the Summer Kicks Off

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

Tennessee fans have waited a long time to see Nico Iamaleava run through the T as the Vols’ starting quarterback.

Iamaleava, the No. 1 overall recruit in 2023, committed to Tennessee in March 2022 to give the Vols their first landmark piece of the recruiting cycle. Iamaleava celebrated that early commitment with several unofficial and official visits to Tennessee during the 2022 season, leading up to an early enrollment in December 2022 before the Orange Bowl.

While Tennessee was teased with Iamaleava’s first official start in the Citrus Bowl as Joe Milton opted out to work on the NFL Draft, the California native will be suiting up as Tennessee’s leading man in 2024.

Iamaleava performed well in the Citrus Bowl, racking up four total touchdowns – three rushing, one passing – en route to a shutout 35-0 victory over Iowa on New Year’s Day. Iamaleava looked calm and comfortable running Tennessee’s offense and showed off his mobility behind a banged-up offensive line. Tennessee looked to have used a bit quicker tempo with Iamaleava compared to Milton, highlighting the strengths that the 6-foot-6 quarterback has in Josh Heupel’s offense.

Iamaleava ended his debut start going 12-of-19 for 151 passing yards, 27 rushing yards, one passing touchdown, and three rushing touchdowns.

“I believe he’s going to be a great dynamic player,” Heupel said after the game. “And I know that. I thought he handled himself really composed all day long. Subtle things, little things, breaking the huddle, communication inside of the hall, controlling the run game. His eyes went in the right place. Great to see a young guy go out and perform in that way in his first career start.”

Knowing that this was only the start of the journey, though, Heupel reiterated that there are still “a lot of things” that his quarterback can continue to grow in.

Fast forward three months. Iamaleava is back on the field leading his team to spring training camp in Knoxville. Tennessee’s coaching staff and a handful of players spoke about Iamaleava’s improved vocal leadership in his first offseason as the starting quarterback in the program but noted that there is still room and time to grow this offseason.

“He does a phenomenal job in one-on-one situations, communication with wide receivers after a series, offensive lines,” Heupel said after Tennessee’s first spring practice. “The growth of his voice within our entire program, he’s going to have to continue to grow in that role. That’s something that’s true for every young quarterback. I expect him to continue to mold into that.”

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Iamaleava himself acknowledged the trait while speaking with the media during the spring, unprompted after a question about where he is trying to build and improve his leadership.

“I’ve been trying to work on being more vocal for the guys, speaking out when I need to,” Iamaleava said. “But I think just putting myself out there, hanging out with the guys and you know, just making sure we’re getting to them, getting our business done. But yeah, I think I’m just going more on, I’d say that the vocal aspect of it just being louder for the guys is what I’ve really been trying to work on.”

The skillset that Iamaleava has shown in the past combined with the improvements that he is making on and off the field in his first starting offseason makes him a potentially dangerous piece in Josh Heupel’s offense. ESPN’s Paolo Uggetti listed Iamaleava as his No. 1 breakout player in college football in a summer preview article on Thursday.

“There’s no surprise here,” Uggetti wrote for ESPN. “One of the most highly touted and anticipated players in last year’s high school class is set to get his shot at being Tennessee’s starting quarterback this season after a four-touchdown, MVP-winning performance in the Citrus Bowl last season. Iamaleava may be young, slight and inexperienced, but the hype surrounding him has been present for a reason.”

Iamaleava’s presence is enough for CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd to list Tennessee as the No. 15 in way-too-early rankings. Dodd acknowledged the Vols’ quarterback in his opening sentence saying, “We can’t wait to see Nico Iamaleava lead this offense.”

But it isn’t just this season, though. While expectations are high for the Volunteers and drama is spilling through the seams with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma to go along with a new expanded playoff, Iamaleava also sets Tennessee up well for the future.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg listed Tennessee as having the eighth-best future offense in the country, mainly behind the arm and legs of Iamaleava.

“The much-anticipated Nico Iamaleava era is here as the redshirt freshman quarterback, the No. 23 overall recruit in 2023, will lead Tennessee’s offense at least through 2025,” Rittenberg wrote about Tennessee. “Predecessors Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III had dual-threat ability, but Iamaleava gives Tennessee’s offense a different QB run element.”

One way or another, a lot of hype has been building on the shoulders of Iamaleava. The second-year quarterback has been humble and patient through it all.

Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for more Tennessee football coverage throughout the offseason.

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