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Heupel talks Nico Iamaleava, Joe Milton to kick off spring practice

Looking at the state of the quarterback room.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee opened spring practice on Monday morning in Knoxville, kicking off year three of the Josh Heupel era. They also officially kicked off the post Hendon Hooker era at quarterback.

Actually, that happened down in Miami during the Orange Bowl. Joe Milton took over the offense after Hooker tore his ACL late in the year, giving us a potential preview of what 2023 could look like. However, Hooker’s presence as a leader was still felt. He was on the sidelines helping Milton and the offense take apart Clemson, but now he’s officially moved on to the NFL.

Now it’s Milton being viewed as the leader, and a new face has entered the equation. The No. 1 overall player in the class of 2023 is officially on the depth chart for Tennessee, as Nico Iamaleava continues to learn the ropes. He joined the team for bowl practices, and continues to attack the learning curve this spring.

“He’s going to be pushed extremely quickly,” Josh Heupel said of Iamaleava. “Just look at where we’re at at the quarterback position. Great urgency is going to be needed for him. He’s extremely coachable. From the moment he’s stepped foot on campus, that’s bowl preparation to coming back here at the end of January when we started the winter semester, he’s been phenomenal.”

At worst, Iamaleava is Tennessee’s backup quarterback this year. Offensive coordinator Joey Halzle promised a quarterback battle ahead of the Orange Bowl, a comment that was directed at Milton and Iamaleava. It remains to be seen if Nico can truly get in that starter battle picture.

“He’s got great urgency, he cares a great deal about learning our offense (and) learning his craft at the quarterback position,” Heupel continued. “Takes coaching extremely well. He resets and moves on to the next play at a really high level. He’s come in, he’s worked, guys believe in him. I’m just talking about how he carries himself. Slowly seeing him start to grow and take more ownership. He’s still really young, but excited to have these 15 days with him.”

For Milton, it’s his final chance to put all the pieces together at the college level. I think we’re all dying to see what that would look like, considering his unlimited physical talents. Virtually any improvements at all with accuracy would have NFL teams drooling, but inconsistent play has held him back to this point.

However, Milton did appear to be a different guy in some mop-up spots last year. And you really can’t deny the progress you saw in the Orange Bowl. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a giant step forward.

“He really has been the same guy,” Heupel said of Milton. “I said this last year, you could feel his energy and focus, and he was very intentional in the way that he worked. He had a voice inside our team. When he got his opportunity to start on the back end of the season, I spoke to those things before the Vanderbilt game and the Orange Bowl. The same is true today. You hear his voice more often because certain guys aren’t here that were in some of those leadership roles, but that’s true for a lot of guys on our roster. I’ve been really proud of the way that Joe has worked here.”

As for a potential quarterback battle, Heupel predictably didn’t offer much, but kept things open with a coach-speaky answer.

“I believe Joe will be ready to play at an elite level,” Heupel said. “There’s competition at every position. I’ve said that from the time I got here. I don’t care how you were recruited, if you were walk-on or not, if you started a game or a year ago, it doesn’t matter, it’s about who you are today. That’s why you have to be very competitive in everything that you’re doing and intentional in the way that you work. I believe Joe will be ready to play at a really high level but there’s going to be competition everywhere.”

Our first look at Iamaleava will come on April 15th during the Orange and White Game, where he will presumably lead a team against Joe Milton in the scrimmage.