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Josh Heupel talks performance of Nico Iamaleava, plans for the rest of the season

A strong showing on Saturday.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee took care of business quickly on Saturday afternoon against UConn, providing Josh Heupel and his staff a rare chance to unload the bench. The Volunteers were shaky against Austin Peay and even at times against UTSA, which took potential opportunities to play and develop youth off the table. Finally, that chance came on Saturday.

Of course, the big name here is former No. 1 overall player Nico Iamaleava. The five-star prospect is going to be handed the keys to the car next year, and the plan was to get him plenty of mop-up time as a true freshman. That just hasn’t happened so far this year, and with three SEC games left, the opportunities look scarce down the stretch.

Tennessee scored a couple of defensive touchdowns in the third quarter to put the cherry on top, and Iamaleava entered the game with a 49-3 lead.

“Just the way the season has unfolded, we haven’t had a lot of opportunities for some guys that are a little bit down our depth chart, are not starting, to get some of that action,” Heupel said after the game on Saturday. “Nico went out, I thought he handled all parts of the game really well for the most part. There’s a couple of learning opportunities for him. I thought he was timely using his feet, accurate with the football for the most part. There’s a couple things that he would want back, really solid performance from him.”

Iamaleava entered the game with mostly starters still in the game. The 6-6 signal caller immediately manufactured a touchdown drive.

“Your first one’s always a big one as an individual player, you know, for Nico, and then for the guys around him, too, to be excited for him and what he did,” Heupel said. “That’s offensive linemen, skill guys, Joe. It’s everybody. They see the work that he puts in, the type of player that he is, and that was a big moment for him.”

Nico got things going with a big run, escaping the pocket to flip the field. The mobility continued to show as he rolled right to find McCallan Castles along the sideline for another first down. He came right back to Castles for the first touchdown, hitting him in stride over the middle for the score.

Iamaleava finished 5 of 9 passing for 86 yards and a touchdown. He added 25 on the ground in limited work. It was an overall really solid showing from Nico, who showed command of the offense and a true feel in the pocket. You saw the athletic ability and the arm strength, but also some shaky accuracy at times. That can probably be attributed to a little bit of nerves, along with a lack of meaningful action to this point.

“There’s a couple things in communication and then fundamentally, just where his body was at on one of the throws,” Heupel said. “But man, I thought he did a really good job.”

So far this season, Iamaleava has appeared in three games (Virginia, UTSA, UConn). NCAA rules state that a player can appear in up to four without losing their redshirt status. Realistically, the only other chance Tennessee has for a blowout comes against Vanderbilt in the final game of the season. But you never know how things are going to develop.

It doesn’t sound like Heupel has a firm plan one way or another on a redshirt at this point.

“Man, You know what I mean? Just uniquely how the season’s unfolded so we’ll see what, what comes, you know what I mean? Every weekend’s an adventure,” Heupel said when asked about plans to redshirt.

Truthfully, Iamaleava has the looks of a guy that will be headed to the NFL sooner rather than later, so the redshirt situation may not even matter. But again, you never know. I get the sense that Heupel wouldn’t pass up an opportunity for playing time for Nico, considering how much will be riding on his shoulders in 2024.

We’ll see if he gets that chance over the next two months.