Nico Iamaleava has already arrived in Knoxville. In fact, he’s been around for a couple of months now — longer than that if you add up his countless visits to Neyland Stadium this fall. The five-star quarterback out of California officially entered the program in December, taking reps with the team ahead of the Orange Bowl. Obviously he couldn’t play in that one, but he took the opportunity to get his feet wet.
Now entering the spring, he’s ready to take on more after getting the basics down.
“He came back this January, and he had transferred all of his notes over to his iPad that he had, and he knows a lot of the way we call stuff, the way we take our drops, all of that when he first got on campus,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said. “It’s monumental because now you can start going into the details of actually playing the quarterback position, because he has a good firm understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re calling plays.”
Iamaleava comes to Knoxville and immediately enters a quarterback battle. Senior Joe Milton is widely expected to earn the starting gig, especially after his MVP performance in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson. However, an open competition was promised, and Milton will have to earn it.
Iamaleava will get his chances in the spring, and not starting from ground zero will be a big deal for him.
“Now, he’s young, he’s got to learn,” Halzle said. “I thought it was great that he got to go play football with us in December and then go play more football and then come back, so you’re not two months off your high school career and it’s the first time you’re picking up the ball again. I thought that was really beneficial for him.”
Halzle also told reporters that he want Nico to ‘rip it.’ He wants him to make mistakes and play free, then learn and progress.
“The biggest thing about freshmen getting here, whether it’s December for bowl practice or in spring ball is they get a chance to mess it up,” Halze continued. “They’re going to. I’ve told them that. You’re going to mess it up. Don’t play timid. Don’t play slow trying to be right. Play as fast as you can, rip it all over the field, make your mistakes. We’ll come in the film room and we’ll learn from them, and then we’ll go back out there and try to make less each day as we’re moving forward.”
Iamaleava finished the 2023 recruiting cycle as On3’s No. 1 overall player in the class, edging out Arch Manning and others for the top spot. He lands in a pretty nice situation with Tennessee, with a clear path towards the starting job, even if that doesn’t come this season.
Using 2023 as a developmental season, all while preparing as the No. 2 weekly, will benefit him looking ahead to 2024.
“It gives you a chance that when fall camp comes around, they’re not trying to figure out what to do,” Halzle finished. “They’ve run all this before. They’ve seen all these different defensive looks. Now they’re finding themselves as a player and how they operate within the system, which now gives you a chance to actually go operate with live fire in the fall.”
Tennessee is currently set to roll with just two scholarship quarterbacks on the depth chart, which is a move that concerns some. Tayven Jackson exited via the transfer portal, leaving walk-on Gaston Moore as the third option.
Halzle seems confident with that plan for now, but admits that the transfer portal era forces you to always be evaluating.
“What with the transfer portal, you never know what’s going to come in and out of your building any more, so do you have to have a chance to be always evaluating? Yeah, absolutely,” Halzle said. “Don’t see a pressing need, but it could absolutely be one at some point, so I’m not going to sit here and say either way yes or no at this point.”
Tennessee’s quarterbacks, particularly Iamaleava, will be a big focus next month as the Volunteers kick off spring practice.