The Nico Iamaleava era began with massive success on Monday afternoon in Orlando. Tennessee demolished Iowa in the Citrus Bowl, jumping out to an early lead behind the legs of the true freshman quarterback. Iamaleava scored three times on the ground, pushing the Volunteers out to a 21-0 lead.
Considering Iowa’s horrific offense, that was all she wrote. Tennessee went on to win 35-0.
Iamaleava looked great on the ground, but more importantly, he looked really comfortable running Tennessee’s up-tempo attack. He was decisive in the pocket, checking through his reads to find the open man most of the time. There wasn’t anything really dynamic about Tennessee’s passing attack, but that’s to be expected with Iowa’s stout defense. Iamaleava took what was given to him, which is all he needed to do on this day.
“I believe he’s gonna be a great dynamic player,” Josh Heupel said after the game. “And I know that. I thought he handled himself really composed all day long. Subtle things, little things, breaking the huddle, communication inside of the hall, controlling the run game. His eyes went in the right place. Great to see a young guy go out and perform in that way in his first career start.”
Iamaleava finished the day 12-19 for 151 yards and a touchdown.
The former No. 1 overall player in the class of 2023 certainly delivered in his first opportunity as Tennessee’s starter. You can make the argument that Tennessee’s offense looked about as strong as it had all year, putting up 383 yards against (statistically) one of the best defenses in the country.
Former Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker certainly took notice.
is The Chosen One— Hendon Hooker (@henhook2) January 1, 2024
“There’s a lot of things that Nico can continue to grow and grow in,” Heupel continued. “The challenge early in the football game was guys playing at a really high level around him, too. I didn’t think we played as well as we were capable at times around him, but we got great confidence in him and that quarterback toom. We got great confidence in those young players. A lot of guys got an opportunity to play a lot more football today than they had. And a lot of them played extremely well. But it also showed some things where they’ve got an opportunity to grow and how those things impact our game unfolds. And I’m really excited about who’s in that locker room, who’s coming back, and where we have an opportunity to go in ’24.”
The receivers could have made Iamaleava’s even a better one, but drops — as they did all year long — plagued them. Regardless, you saw the level of confidence and control from the true freshman quarterback, who will assume the starting role next season.
Iamaleava will get back plenty of experience on the offensive line, even more so should Javontez Spraggins return. He’ll bring back Bru McCoy, Squirrel White and Dont’e Thornton at receiver, all while adding transfer Chris Brazzell, five-star Mike Matthews and four-star Braylon Staley. Guys like Kaleb Webb, Chas Nimrod and Nathan Leacock could certainly make a leap as well.
The hype surrounding Iamaleava is just beginning, and you can expect that to build this offseason. His next step will be taking ownership of this team during the spring period, where he’ll go through that session as the unquestioned starter.
It’s going to be fascinating to compare his first full season of action to that of Joe Milton’s 2023 — will it look more like Hooker’s special 2022 campaign? Josh Heupel and Tennessee fans certainly hope so.