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Nico Iamaleava gives Vols a bright outlook for 2024 and beyond

Cheez-It Citrus Bowl - Iowa v Tennessee Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Tennessee Volunteers ended their season on a very high note, toppling the Iowa Hawkeyes 35-0 on Monday afternoon at the Citrus Bowl. Amid a season of ups and downs, it was surely the best way the team could have finished the tumultuous year.

One of the best things about winning a bowl game is the hope it gives for the following year as the team goes into a very long offseason. However, this particular win gave more than just the typical feel goods. This one gave some real, tangible hope of fun years ahead.

And that’s because of the Chosen One. Not my words, but rather those of Hendon Hooker regarding the Vols’ new starting quarterback Nico Iamaleava.

Iamaleava made his first career start on Monday, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he played. The freshman was calm in the pocket, poised under pressure, and avoided making a big mistake to give the Hawkeyes a short field and some easy points. It seemed as though he had a natural instinct to sense pressure and make subtle shifts to avoid it. He was decisive and didn’t often hang onto the ball too long, although a patchwork offense line led to a few sacks throughout the game.

Offensive coordinator Joey Halzle and center Cooper Mays tried to tell everyone during the week. They talked about his maturity level and how you wouldn’t know he was a freshman. They were right.

Was it all perfect? No. Did he light it up with his arm? Again, no. He threw for 151 yards and a score, although that should have been more if Ramel Keyton doesn’t stop his route in the second half. But Iamaleava didn’t really have to try to win this game with his arm. That wasn’t the assignment.

The assignment was making the proper reads. Taking the plays that were there. Understanding when an incompletion is a positive result in a situation. Basically things that Halzle talked about wanting to see from Iamaleava on Monday against one of the best defenses in the country.

In short, Iamaleava looked fully in control of an offense missing key starters in multiple places. He found a way to make plays happen and avoided mistakes. And he looked every bit of the player Vol fans hope can take the program to lofty heights in the coming years.

Tennessee has a lot to fix across its roster for 2024, make no mistake about that. They’re far behind teams like Georgia on both lines of scrimmage. But having a budding star under center will attract talent. That leads to wins, which in turn lead to more talent.

Iamaleava said after the game the goal is to win the national championship. While it probably won’t happen in 2024, there’s a good shot the Vols have the guy that can help build towards that starting next fall.

Enjoy the offseason, Tennessee fans. The future is in good hands.