Dating back to last year, you couldn’t ask for a better relationship between your starting quarterback and backup. Hendon Hooker ended up taking Joe Milton’s job back in 2021, but Milton stuck around and went to work. The result ended up being a lasting friendship, as Hooker did everything he could to elevate Milton’s game.
Now with Hooker out of the picture, it seems like Milton is going to try and continue that tradition. Milton has just one season left, meaning Iamaleava is getting the keys to the car in 2024. For now though, Iamaleava has to be ready to roll as the backup — just as Joe was a year ago.
That process actually began back in December when Iamaleava joined the team ahead of the Orange Bowl. The five-star prospect got 15 practices to get his feet wet with, then got the full spring period to get ready for the fall.
That winter and spring period also let Iamaleava and Milton get familiar with each other.
“They’re already extremely close,” offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said on Tuesday. “I think Nico getting here in December and having those 15 bowl practices and then coming to the bowl site where he just got to be around the guys. He was new so they didn’t really know him, but he just got to be around. Everyone (was like) I like this guy, he’s a good dude, he’s just a normal kid. And now it’s almost like big brother little brother relationship with the two of them.”
Iamaleava, On3’s No. 1 ranked prospect in the class of 2023, has been praised for his leadership in addition to his physical talents. Getting to Knoxville with no pressure in year one and learning from Milton, who is now entering year three in the system, is a win-win for everyone.
“You rarely see Joe without Nico,” Halzle continued. “So, it’s been great for him to kind of see the way like a quarterback should operate on a day-to-day level. Joe’s been a great mentor to him and he’s really helped bring along his development on and off the field.”
For Milton, his transformation as a player was on display this winter in Miami during the Orange Bowl. According to Halzle, he didn’t let that performance go to his head, either.
“He’s a completely different guy — not just player, but his attention to detail is elite,” Halzle said of his veteran passer. “He came back after that Clemson game and he was hungry to keep learning and keep pushing forward. He didn’t rest on his laurels like, all right, cool, I figured it out. He pushed. I think he saw the success that he had and he knows what his talent can do and now his mentality is matching that as far as how much he wants to learn, how much he’s just consuming the game at all times. It’s fun to be a part of right now. It’s a special mindset that that kid has.”
Milton is hoping to turn in a special season on Rocky Top this fall with an NFL future on the line. It sounds like he’s also hoping to leave his mark on the program but showing the way to Iamaleava, who will follow in his footsteps next year.