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Tennessee football: What would define success for Nico Iamaleava, Joe Milton III in 2023?

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There are mixed feelings about Tennessee football quarterback Joe Milton. At least at different times.

Before the Orange Bowl, the perception was Milton couldn’t hit the ocean with a rock if he were standing in a boat. Since then, the perspective has changed. After his masterful performance against Clemson, Milton is now a bona fide starter in most Tennessee fans’ minds before spring practice has even begun. Sure, there’s that Nico Iamaleava guy, but he’s just a freshman. The narrative changed mightily in Miami.

Iamaleava arrived on campus in December as one of the top overall prospects in the nation. He was often ranked just behind Texas’ Arch Manning as the top quarterback in the 2023 class. Expectations were sky high that Iamaleava would have a huge impact on the field in his first season in Knoxville – before the Orange Bowl. Now, no one seems to care if Iamaleava sits on the bench for a season. Ballyhooed? Yes, but he can wait. So what would define success for the highest-rated signee in Tennessee football history? That’s debatable.

Most think Iamaleava just needs to get bigger, better and learn the offense while Milton does his best Hendon Hooker impression. That may be the plan, but Tennessee coach Josh Heupel doesn’t seem like a wait-around kind of coach. He’ll have an open competition in spring practice, but Milton clearly has the inside track. Heupel proved he was comfortable enough with Milton when the Vols didn’t heavily pursue a transfer quarterback before National Signing Day. The Vols still could still snag a quarterback after spring camp, but that seems unlikely.

Most programs around the country would expect a five-star quarterback prospect to play immediately. Those type of prospects aren’t expected to hang out and get to know the campus before contributing. Falling short of that would be a disappointment in most situations. However, Tennessee football can wait, as long as Milton plays like he did against Clemson. So what defines success for Iamaleava if he isn’t needed to step into a vacant starting position? To make sure it isn’t vacant.

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Milton entered the 2022 season knowing that he would most likely be the backup to Hooker, who secured the job in 2021. With Milton as the likely starter heading into spring camp, which begins on March 20, there’s a new standard for success for Iamaleava. If the Californian can be good enough to push Milton in the offseason, that may be enough to better all parties.

Like anyone, Milton could use the push. He could still get better as evident by his pre-Orange Bowl performance in which his accuracy was regularly – and understandably – questioned. Tennessee would obviously benefit from a strong season from Milton as the starter. Iamaleava would be able to grow physically and mentally in Tennessee’s system. However, no one would benefit more than Milton, who has at least 12 games to finance the rest of his life. Just take a look at the NFL combine.

Florida’s Anthony Richardson is the talk of the NFL after wowing scouts and general managers with his measurables. Milton can be in the same position, at least he should be thinking that way. Milton can stand toe-to-toe with any quarterback physically, and he will likely have the strongest arm in the 2024 NFL draft class. If Richardson can be a high first-round draft pick with very little experience, then why can’t Milton be the same.

Of course, things happen, just like when Milton got hurt in 2021 and lost the starting job to Hooker. I’m not ruling out that Iamaleava could become the starter in 2023. However, he doesn’t need to be to be in order for his freshman season to be considered a success. All Iamaleava needs to do is push Milton just enough to avoid any complacency, and with millions of dollars on the line, it shouldn’t take too much pushing.

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