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Tennessee football targeting another elite QB: What does that say about Nico Iamaleava?

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Tennessee football is trying its best to become known as Quarterback University. That evolution may well continue this week.

The Vols are thought to be in the lead position for Jake Merklinger from Calvary Day (Ga.) School. Merklinger is also considering North Carolina, Georgia and Michigan State. With five-star quarterback prodigy Nico Iamaleava already on campus as the Vols’ highest-rated signee in college football recruiting history, it’s natural to wonder why Tennessee is so interested to spend resources on a quarterback if it already has one in place.

Merklinger is rated as a four-star prospect, the 55th best prospect in the country and the sixth best quarterback prospect in the nation. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound prospect is set to announce his college decision on Thursday.

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Merklinger is set to enter college in 2024. That means that if Iamaleava is all he’s projected to be, Merklinger would have to sit on the bench for a year or two in order to compete as a Vol. Sure, he could always transfer easily nowadays, but that’s still a bit of stumbling start to a college career. 

Is Merklinger being told that he can compete for the starting job at Tennessee as soon as he arrives on campus? Probably. That’s the way recruiting works and is no reflection about how Tennessee’s coaches really feel about Iamaleava or any other quarterback prospect that the Vols might be flirting with. It also shouldn’t be a negative reflection on Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel. Players are getting paid, and they are being treated like employees across the nation, not just at Tennessee.

The most commonly believed scenario for Tennessee’s quarterback position is that senior Joe Milton III will start this season and Iamaleava will pick up after Milton is gone. Let’s say that happens. If that’s the case, then it will be hard to truly determine just how good Iamaleava is if he’s only a mop-up quarterback in 2023. Could there be an open competition when Merklinger arrives on campus? One would think he believes that’s the case. A player of Merklinger’s stature isn’t committing to a college hoping he can learn the ropes for a couple of years.

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The Vols only have two scholarship quarterbacks on campus, which would have sounded absurd just five years ago when coaches wanted at least three and, preferably, four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Now, times have changed. Players can go, and coaches can coerce them into going. Just ask former Vol quarterbacks Brian Maurer or Tayven Jackson about that.

Heupel has an advantage over other coaches. His offense isn’t overly complicated, so newcomers, even at quarterback, can have an early impact. Former Vol quarterback Hendon Hooker did so last season in his first experience as a full-time starter. He and Milton were at least ready to play in 2021 even if they were far from elite.

While recruiting has vastly changed, there’s still one question that comes to mind when news broke that the Vols are recruiting a highly touted signal caller and are likely to land him: Is Iamaleava not living up to the hype? Frankly, that’s still impossible to tell. Iamaleava is still just getting settled in. Moreover, if he were struggling in practice, Tennessee’s coaches wouldn’t throw him under the bus this early by sharing that publicly. However, there have been questions about Iamaleava’s accuracy during open portions of spring practice.

Signing Merklinger could elevate Tennessee to the forefront of the next evolution of NIL. What happens when it all goes wrong? If Iamaleava isn’t as good as advertised, do businesses want their money back? If they don’t get it or do, does one side start chirping about questionable recruiting tactics? A hornet’s nest has fewer moving parts.

That’s where the whole NIL issue could get very interesting. Things have worked swimmingly for the Vols to this point. However, if the Vols see Merklinger as anymore than a backup, then there could be a major upheaval under center. That could lead to a major upheaval in how Tennessee football does NIL business.

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