Finally, the moment that most of us have been clamoring for is here — Nico Iamaleava is going to start a real, live football game. Calls for the true freshman grew louder as the season came to a close, with Tennessee’s title hope dashed following a couple of losses to Missouri and Georgia. The staff ended up sticking with Milton in those final games, with Nico relegated to mop-up duty only.
Tennessee did preserve Iamaleava’s redshirt status, and that won’t be affected here with bowl games not counting against that number (4).
And now, things get real.
Iamaleava has appeared in four games this season, making the most noise against UConn and Vanderbilt back in November. The 6-6, 206 pound freshman is just 16-26 on the year, throwing for 163 yards and a one touchdown. Based off Josh Heupel’s comments from early in the year, this season didn’t exactly play out how they wanted it to with Iamaleava not getting much experience in blowout situations.
That’s set to change on Monday in the Citrus Bowl against a tough Iowa team.
“He’s smart, he’s competitive,” Heupel said of Iamaleava on Wednesday. “When he makes a mistake, and young players are always going to do that, he continues to learn and grow from it, doesn’t repeat it. He’s got the ability to reset from play to play, day to day.
“Extremely talented — everybody’s known that. But I love the way that he works inside of our building. And he’s got a great demeanor about him, but he’s great at communicating with his teammates, as well.”
Iamaleava came to Knoxville as the top prospect in the entire class of 2023, per On3. The California native led Warren High School to a 9-2 record as a senior, throwing 25 touchdowns. He threw 33 as a junior. Following his high school career, Iamaleava put up an MVP performance in the Polynesian Bowl.
“He’s continued to grow so much fundamentally,” Heupel continued. “Allowed him to play at this level. Continued to grow (in) consistency, fundamentals, decision-making, being accurate with the football, in command of what we’re doing offensively. This will be his first opportunity to start against a really good defense, but excited to go play with him.”
Iamaleava will just be one piece of a Tennessee youth movement in the Citrus Bowl. The Volunteers will turn to Dylan Sampson in the backfield, along with true freshmen Cam Seldon and Khalifa Keith, following opt-outs from Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright. Guys like Kaleb Webb and Chas Nimrod will also play big roles in the offense — not to mention all the youth that will play on the other side of the ball in the secondary.
Monday’s game will legitimately be a look into Tennessee’s future. Will the chemistry be there? That’s going to be the x-factor here.
“During the course of the season, we get a lot of reps with our guys that would be considered twos, so he’s had a lot of growth throughout the course of the season during game preparation, but out on the practice field, as well,” Heupel said. “During the bowl prep, we emphasize the young guys a lot early.
“We have some young wide receivers that have played a lot of football. Those guys were considered young. He’s gotten a lot of reps with those guys, even before we got into the actual game prep. So he’s gotten a lot of work with those guys. It’s not an entire season of volume with them, but I anticipate those guys being on the same page.”
We’ve seen the flashes from Nico dating back to the spring, most notably this ridiculous throw down the sideline to Ethan Davis.
Now he’s going to get a chance to do it for four quarters. I’m interested to see how the staff calls the game in this spot. Will they be conservative? Probably early on. But will they eventually open things up and let him work down the field? That’s the part that we all want to see.
Either way, four quarters of experience against a good defense can only help Iamaleava, no matter what the results look like.
Tennessee and Iowa are set for a New Year’s Day kickoff on ABC at 1 p.m. ET in Orlando.