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Tennessee Football: QB Nico Iamaleava Ready If Joe Milton III Gets Sidelined

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Tennessee’s plan for its quarterbacks is pretty simple. Bring Nico Iamaleava along while Joe Milton III leads the Vols to new heights in his final season as Tennessee’s quarterback. Well, if that doesn’t work out, all is not lost.

First-year offensive coordinator Joey Halzle isn’t worried that the Vols will have any problem if Iamaleava has to play early this season. History would indicate the Vols will need two quarterbacks. That’s been the case the previous two seasons. However, the Vols have never had to throw a freshman into the fray since head coach Josh Heupel took over in 2021. Even though Iamaleava was a highly touted prospect, he is still beginning his first college season.

“Huge confidence in him,” Halzle said of the potential of Iamaleava having to play early in the season. “That guy is mature beyond his years. He didn’t come in like a true freshman. He came in wanting to learn.” 

Said Iamaleava, “Next man up. God forbid if anything happens to Joe, I’ll be ready to perform. Really just being there whenever my number is called and perform at the same level that Joe runs the offense (is the goal). My confidence is very high as far as the work I’ve put in. I think I’m ready to go out there and perform whenever my number is called.”

Iamaleava came to Tennessee for bowl practice and participated in spring practice. As one of the top quarterbacks in the 2023 class, he quickly showed that he didn’t have the arrogance that can accompany such a lofty rating. Halzle, who spoke to the media on Tuesday to open preseason camp, said Iamaleava came to Tennessee with a strong willingness and need to learn and improve. Then, there’s the way he carries himself.

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“His calmness on the field, just his demeanor,” Halzle said. “I think the guys believe in him as well that if he’s called upon to do a job like that, dude will step in and compete at a high level and perform at a high level. 

“So, we have a ton of confidence in that guy.”

That, however, doesn’t mean that Milton is just standing around waiting to lose his projected starting job. In fact, Milton’s accuracy has improved dramatically, according to Halzle, thanks to some changes in his footwork.

“His accuracy has grown so much,” Halzle said. “His touch has grown so much because he’s dialed into, fundamentally, changing a little bit. He had the classic thing: he has a naturally powerful arm so a lot of times you can just get away with things. 

“He has taken a huge growth in using his lower body, not trying to rip the ball with his upper body every time, and his accuracy has just jumped through the roof right there, now with that big, powerful arm, he can put the ball out on the perimeter really quick so he gives you some ways to stretch the field, not just vertically with the arm but laterally as well. That guy can do anything you ask him to and now he’s doing it at a higher, consistent level and that’s why you’re going to see the jump from that year one to now.”

Milton said the key to his improved accuracy is his balance, that he had a tendency to lean over his front foot. With an offseason as the projected starter, he’s been able to address that issue.

“I’ll be fine,” the senior said.

Halzle said that Milton has also improved in his approach to the game. He now knows why plays are called, not just that they have been called. He also can sense where pressure might be coming from because he has a better feel for Tennessee’s offensive line.

Milton also has a built-in advantage. He can rely on a group of receivers that have the ability to make plays out of short throws. That was evident when the Vols ran more short routes over the middle against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The key for Milton is making sure he puts bad plays behind him, which he admitted hasn’t always been the case last month at SEC Media Days.

“A lot of that is just training the mind that anger doesn’t help you,” Halzle said. “Learn something from it and move on. That’s been the biggest thing from him.”

The Vols also have a built in advantage with Milton’s size. If they want him to run the ball, he can. He’s 235 pounds while last year’s starter, Hendon Hooker, began the season at 218.

“A big guy like that you can do a lot of fun stuff that can run,” Halzle said. “Obviously, running the quarterback, we all understand you’ve got to be smart and pick your times when to do it.”

Aside from something unforeseen, Milton is expected to be the Vols’ starter the entire season. If there ends up being a true competition at some point, Tennessee’s coaches will likely commend Milton for being a mentor to Iamaleava.

“They’re already extremely close,” Halzle said. “Nico getting here in December and having those 15 bowl practices and then coming to the bowl site where he just got to be around the guys…Now it’s almost like big brother/little brother relationship with the two of them. You rarely see Joe without Nico, so it’s been great for him to kind of see the way a quarterback should operate on a day-to-day level. Joe’s been great mentor to him and he’s really helping bring along his development on and off the field.”

Said Milton, “His first day on campus I told him that any question isn’t a dumb question. I understand what he’s going through as a freshman. Everything you could possibly be as a freshman, I’ve been through it. 

Whether Iamaleava can truly push Milton for playing time remains to be seen. However, it’s clear that Milton isn’t the same player that arrived on campus when he transferred from Michigan following the 2020 season.

“He’s a completely different guy, not just player,” Halzle said. “His attention to detail is elite. He came back after that Clemson game and he was hungry to keep learning to keep pushing forward. He didn’t rest on his laurels.”

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