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Heupel: Nico Iamaleava ‘ready to play at a really high level’

The team has confidence in the five-star freshman.

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

Tennessee is entering 2023 with confidence following a strong, bounceback finish to their 2022 season. However, there is a little mystery at the most important position on the field. We all think we know what the Vols have in Joe Milton, but what about behind him? At a moment’s notice, true freshman Nico Iamaleava could be forced into action.

The five-star, No. 1 overall prospect has been preparing for that potential moment since arriving on campus back in December. He went through bowl practices with the team, then the spring and now the fall.

Should he be forced into action, Josh Heupel is confident he’s ready to perform.

“I think he’s ready to play at a really high level,” Heupel said on Monday. “All young quarterbacks, it’s different when you get out there and it’s lot of bullets and you don’t have a right jersey on. But I feel really good about where he’s at. Command of our offense, being a really sound decision-maker, fundamentally being able to get himself in a good position to be consistently accurate with the ball. I like what he’s done.”

Iamaleava, a 6-6, 206 pound passer out of California, was named the 2022 Polynesian High School Player of the Year. He’s been praised for his physical traits — the arm, the ability to move — but also his leadership.

“As a young man coming into a program, understanding the standards that we have here, but the demands of playing quarterback at this level,” Heupel continued. “Being able to start to grasp and understand, what’s going on from up front, protections, defensive structure, being able to see and recognize, anticipate and see post-snap rotations from the back end. At the end of the day, controlling his job and having his eyes in the right spot. He’s a dramatically different player than he was in spring ball. Love the steps that he took in the spring, too. This football team’s got a lot of trust in him.”

Tennessee opted to roll with just two scholarship quarterbacks this season, with walk-on Gaston Moore operating as QB3. That says a little something about how much trust this staff is putting in him, with the potential of another special season on the horizon this fall.

Of course, focus is really being put on the 2024 season, where Iamaleava will take over as the starter once Milton departs. Instead of being thrown into the fire as a starter, he’s able to take his time learning the system, getting up to speed with the pace of play that Heupel likes to operate with.

“For Nico this year, right now in the back-end of training camp, getting prepared for week one and throughout the course of the season, as it’s true for every guy, it’s not the first guy out there, offense, defense or special teams,” Heupel said. “It’s about continued growth and putting yourself in a position to play at your highest level when you get your opportunities.

“So, Nico’s operated that way. He’s been intentional in the way that he’s worked. Joe being able to see things and communicate to Nico. Never it being personal. It’s a really positive relationship that exists between those two, but all the guys inside that quarterback room. It’s a really unique dynamic”

Thanks to Tennessee’s offensive success, Milton got quite a bit of playing time in mop-up duty last season. You really saw the strides Milton had made during those moments, and you would expect to see a similar plan unfold for Iamaleava this fall.

Iamaleava’s playing time could begin as early as September 2nd in the opener, where Tennessee is a 28 point favorite over ACC opponent Virginia in Nashville.