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Tennessee Football: Patience will be key to determining the future of Nico Iamaleava and the Vols

Nico Iamaleava dodged a pass rusher, shifted to the side, spotted tight end Ethan Davis downfield, and delivered a dime for a huge gain in Tennessee’s Orange and White game.

This wasn’t a play you can coach or teach. It wasn’t a play resulting from the scheme.

It was pure unadulterated talent.

Make no mistake, Iamaleava, the freshmen five-star from California, is a gifted quarterback – if lightweight. He is listed at 205 – which seems generous – on a 6-foot-6 frame.

He has the arm and instinct and escapability to eventually be a good SEC quarterback.

How good? Only time will tell. But let’s not rush things. Remember, Bryce Young, the former five-star Alabama quarterback, didn’t start his freshman year. Couldn’t beat out Mac Jones. Then Young won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore.

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I’m not saying a Heisman is in Iamaleava’s future. But I am suggesting that, despite his gifts, fans should be patient.

After all, Peyton Manning didn’t play like an All-SEC quarterback his freshman season until the Vols battered Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.

Then you knew.

When will we know about Iamaleava?

We might get a glimpse this fall. I say that because only four of 14 SEC quarterbacks started every game last season. Georgia’s Stetson Bennett was one of them.

Joe Milton has a chance to have an exceptional season for the Vols. But that doesn’t mean he will be injury free. He wasn’t in 2021, when he won the job over Hendon Hooker then got hurt in Game 2.

Iamaleava should benefit from practicing with Tennessee since before the Orange Bowl in December. That gives him a huge jump start on learning the system and getting adjusted to the speed of the game.

And his throw to Davis was encouraging. It was also encouraging to see what Davis did – and can do. He might develop into one of the top tight ends to play at Tennessee since Jason Witten.

Iamaleava finished the spring game a pedestrian 8 of 16 for 112 yards. He had a couple of passes dropped. He also was throwing to backup wideouts since UT’s top four receivers didn’t play due to injury or caution.

The most impressive things he did were display mobility and look downfield when pressured. He was relatively accurate with his throws.

Milton did OK: 9 of 13 for 79 yards and a touchdown. But the spring game is no measuring stick for Milton. His performance against Clemson in the Orange Bowl was – he was named MVP – and if he can play at that level for 12 games, Tennessee will easily be a top 20 team, and might contend for the top 10.

Walk-on junior Gaston Moore, a transfer from Central Florida, was a solid 8 of 11 for 94 yards with two touchdowns. It’s obvious he feels comfortable in the system, since he came to Tennessee when Josh Heupel was hired before the 2021 season.

Some other spring game observations:

Two freshmen running backs stood out. Cameron Seldon, at 6-2, 215, is the biggest back on the team. He showed a burst on a 24-yard scoring run. He had 43 yards on 10 carries and 43 yards on three receptions. DeSean Bishop, the Knoxville native from Karns, led the way with 88 yards on 24 carries. He ran with vision, rarely missing a hole, and followed his blockers well.

-Defensive back Cameron Miller, moved from receiver last year, had an interception and a sack. UT can use all the help it can get for a secondary that ranked 127th in the nation in pass yards allowed.

-Junior defensive back Christian Charles had three tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. He could play corner or safety. He made six starts last season.

-Receiver Kaleb Webb had three catches for 50 yards. He hauled in a 39-yarder than caught a 4-yard scoring toss. UT didn’t play Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton, Squirrel White or Oregon transfer Don’t’e Thornton in the spring game. They need to find another wideout rather than rely on just four.

-The defense overall looked faster and more athletic than last year – and that’s not just based on the spring game. Glimpses during early morning periods revealed UT has some really good young talent.

-UT announced a crowd of 58,473 and I won’t argue that number. The entire South end zone was closed due to renovations, limiting capacity to about 70,000. Fans came to show appreciation for the 11-2 team of 2022, to see some new faces (including Iamaleava) and to enjoy some football.   

“It was a great day on Rocky Top,’’ coach Josh Heupel said. “The fan base is truly special.’’

And they expect another special season from Tennessee.

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