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Heupel on Nico Iamaleava’s progression: ‘He’s a different player’

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

The spotlight has been on Joe Milton this offseason after a strong finish to his 2022 season, but Tennessee has another quarterback of interest on the roster. Nico Iamaleava, On3’s top overall player in the 2023 recruiting cycle, is set to be Tennessee’s backup this fall. Going into 2024, Josh Heupel’s offense will be all his.

That makes the time spent on the practice field right now very important, obviously. Not only does Iamaleava have to be ready to roll this fall, but Heupel is looking down the road and getting him ready for 2024.

After Thursday’s scrimmage, Heupel updated us on his progress through this point in camp. They’re throwing everything at their freshman quarterback, forcing him to learn and hopefully develop quickly.

“You’ve got to grow,” Heupel said of his freshman quarterback. “You’ve got to be pushed. When we install it, he’s running everything. You’ve heard me say that when they finish spring ball, when they come back at the beginning of training camp, they should be a different player.”

Iamaleava joined Tennessee for Orange Bowl practices back in December. That allowed him to get a baseline ahead of spring ball, where he was tossed into the fire as Tennessee’s default QB2.

“He’s a different player,” Heupel continued. “He’s got great command and understanding of what we’re doing. Understands protections, understands how he’s got to get us out of — could be run, run check. Pass, run checks. Whatever it might be. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s grown.”

The five-star prospect has all the tools — the arm, mobility, the leadership traits. Right now though, it’s about learning Tennessee’s unique offense and getting comfortable. Heupel’s up-tempo spread system takes some time to adjust to, and the staff is hoping this season serves as a developmental season.

“He — one of the things we talk about is not making the same mistake twice,” Heupel said. “He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He learns from it. There’s a rep yesterday as he’s going through his reading progression — tight window on the inside, throws the ball (and) while he’s standing in the pocket, you can see him visually like, ‘Hey, man, I should have got out to the next one outside.’ He’s intentional and has great work habits.”

We’ll more than likely get plenty of chances to see Iamaleava play. Milton played quite a few snaps in mop-up duty last season as Tennessee routinely throttled teams. That should be Iamaleava’s role this fall, maybe even as early as the opener.

Tennessee remains a near four-touchdown favorite in their Nashville opener against Virginia. That kickoff is set for September 2nd at noon ET.