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QB Nico Iamaleava the topic of discussion, but why?

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Tennessee coach Josh Heupel was asked about freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava during his weekly press conference on Monday. Why? I have no idea.

The idea of playing Iamaleava, the five-star high school prospect that enrolled at Tennessee in January has practiced well and would be ready to play if needed immediately, per sources within the Vols’ program. However, this seems like the worst possible time.

I thought there should have been an open quarterback competition in spring practice. There wasn’t. I thought Iamaleava should have gotten meaningful snaps at some point this season after starter Joe Milton III struggled mightily. That didn’t happen. So why talk about Iamaleava now when Milton played well against Alabama and seems to be finding himself, especially in terms of when to run and who to throw to. If the Vols went to Iamaleava now for whatever reason, that process would begin anew.

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“He’s done a good job,” Heupel said when asked about Iamaleava. “Continues to prepare the right way. Continuing to gain a deeper understanding of what we’re doing. And obviously week to week is seeing a lot of different defensive structures that he’s got to continue to prepare for.”

Maybe, but Iamaleava doesn’t need to play any meaningful snaps against Kentucky on Saturday. The Vols are just about a four-point favorite so beating the Cats in the Commonwealth is no sure thing. The last thing Tennessee needs is a quarterback controversy.

I do, however, wonder if Heupel would have handled things differently had he known how much Milton would struggle at times this season. Perhaps Iamaleava would have gotten a shot. We’ll never know.

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There is one scenario in which I could see Iamaleava hitting the field for some real reps, aside from Milton being injured. If the Vols feel like they’re tapped out this season, then it may be time to look to the future, but it’s way to early for that. For now.

If, by chance, the Vols stumble for a month and lose to the Cats, Missouri and Georgia, then it would be time to make Iamaleava the starter and see what he’s got for next season. However, I don’t foresee the Vols losing to that extent in which they’d throw in the towel and make a drastic decision like playing Iamaleava.

For all of Milton’s mis-throws and befuddling play at times, there was one strong reason that Heupel was willing to go to battle with Milton at the helm. The answer is simple if you know much about Heupel’s program. Tennessee’s culture, which is more about support than berating, is an important thing to Heupel and it should be. 

That culture would have been fractured, if not all together destroyed, for this season had Milton not been named Tennessee’s starting quarterback until he gets hurt or really flubs it up. Milton is one of the most popular players on the team and considered a very good leader. He just may not be the best quarterback going right now.

Tennessee’s team culture is nothing to dismiss. The Vols have a close knit group that supports one another which leads to individual and team improvement. Different coaches do it different ways, but Heupel wants a family atmosphere and his players have reacted well to that.

There is also a downside to how Heupel has approached the quarterback position this season. What if Iamaleava is a bust? It seems very unlikely, but, if so, the Vols will be looking at a rough 2024 season. Teams can’t stockpile quarterbacks as they once did. The transfer portal has become the ultimate depth chart killer, especially at quarterback. The Vols have a quarterback waiting in the wings with 2024 commitment Jake Merklinger from Calvary Day School in Savannah, Ga., but he’s not even a freshman yet.

I’m certain that Heupel and the Vols were shooting for a national championship this season, but in reality we should have known that losing players like quarterback Hendon Hooker and receiver Jalin Hyatt would have had a bigger effect on the Vols this season. The 2022 offense wasn’t just about Heupel being smarter than everyone. Players matter. In other words, this was a rebuilding year which is fine. However, the Vols don’t want to have two of those back to back.

The question one has to ask after a loss to Alabama is this: Is Tennessee’s program on schedule in Heupel’s third season to be championship contenders. While that’s up for debate, I’d argue the Vols are in good hands. So why so much handwringing? There are a couple of reasons.

Tennessee fans got too high off of the 2022 season and expectations skyrocketed. That means, in some people’s view, a nine-win season would be cause for concern. I disagree. Had it not been for center Cooper Mays’ injury which caused him to miss the Florida game, I feel pretty confident that the Vols would have beaten the Gators. However, let’s not play the would have/should have game. Let’s look at facts.

The Vols will likely be favorites in the remainder of the games they play this season except for Georgia. If the Vols trip up, they may be an eight-win team this season, but that’s no cause for concern. After the mess that Heupel inherited, who wouldn’t be okay with a 10-win season followed by an eight-win season? Let’s not forget how bad things truly were when Heupel took over.

It’s true that the transfer portal makes it easier for programs to turn things around quickly. However, the great players with great NIL deals at their current school probably aren’t going to jump ship very often. In other words, transfers are as risky as they’ve always been. For every former Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara, there are countless transfers who never helped the Vols win football games.

Tennessee still has plenty to play for even though they stand practically no chance of winning any sort of championship. They have pride to play for – and that’s a byproduct of the culture Heupel created. Playing Iamaleava now would tell Tennessee’s other players that the season is practically over and as for the seniors, been nice knowing you.

Tennessee’s senior class deserves to go to a great bowl game. They deserve to be sent off in style. And Milton, despite all of his faults, doesn’t deserve to be benched. He was Tennessee’s ride-or-die quarterback and that won’t change anytime soon.

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