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Tennessee must start Nico Iamaleava for final two games

It’s simple. It’s time.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Plans for five-star freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava changed somewhere during the course of the season. Josh Heupel admitted early in the year that his staff had no plans to redshirt the former No. 1 overall player. However, really starting with the Austin Peay debacle, the door opened for Iamaleava to redshirt.

Playing out down the stretch today, it was clear that became the plan. Joe Milton played out the rest of Georgia’s blowout win over Tennessee, even with the game well in hand. It certainly seemed to make sense to get Iamaleava reps against one of the nation’s best defenses, but instead, Heupel opted to reserve the redshirt.

“Well, at this point, just because there’s only one regular-season (game left), you know, I mean there’s a lot of variables that are taking place outside on that field today,” Heupel said. “And what type of situation you want put (him in).”

With how the season played out, I get it.

Iamaleava has appeared in three games so far this season — Virginia, UTSA and UConn. Players can appear in up to four games in a single season and still get credit for the redshirt. With Vanderbilt up next, you would assume Iamaleava would find some playing time, especially considering that the bowl game doesn’t count towards one of your four appearances.

Iamaleava shouldn’t just ‘see some time’ though, he should get the entire game against Vanderbilt. And the bowl game too.

Tennessee is now 7-4 overall, likely looking at an 8-4 season. Milton is on his way out, and Iamaleava is going to be handed the keys to the car starting in the spring. Why would you not hand him the keys on Saturday? After all, Iamaleava hasn’t gotten the time that we all envisioned coming into the year. Even if it’s just two starts, getting some development to close the year could go a long way for 2024.

I understand that it’s senior day on Saturday, and Milton should be recognized for sticking around and working hard with the program. If you want to get him a couple of series and send him off with a touchdown, I get it. But there’s just no reason to keep Nico sidelined at this point.

Tennessee and Vanderbilt are set for a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on SEC Network. Now with the redshirt status official, it will be pretty interesting to see how the quarterback situation is handled.