Tennessee might not beat Georgia. However, the Vols can do one thing that will enthuse their fan base and make them better in the future. It’s pretty simple actually. Play freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava.
I’m not here to tell Tennessee coach Josh Heupel how to manage his team. However, I do know a bit about public relations and I’m quite sure that the fan base clad in downtrodden orange is ready for a new narrative, one that doesn’t include current starting quarterback Joe Milton.
Let’s be clear, I’m not blaming Milton for the loss at Missouri, nor any of the Vols’ losses this season. I’m willing to put the Florida loss on center Cooper Mays’ injury that got the Vols off to a rough start this season. As for Alabama, one could easily make the argument that the Crimson Tide’s roster is still far better than the Vols despite what happened in 2022 when the Vols beat Bama. One could argue that the Vols would have lost to Florida and Bama with Tom Brady at quarterback given the current state of all the aforementioned programs. The loss to Missouri? That was a team effort. Play Nico.
I’m not here to say that Iamaleava should start against Georgia when the Vols host the Bulldogs in Neyland Stadium on Saturday. However, he should definitely play. The Vols should have a plan to get Iamaleava into the game when it matters. Someone else can handle mop-up duty.
Perhaps there will be a plan in place to play Iamaleava for a couple of series in the first half. Perhaps Iamaleava will be told to be ready to play if Milton struggles, as he almost certainly will, given his track record and Georgia’s defense. No matter the backdrop, play Nico.
Playing Iamaleava would create a positive stir for Tennessee both locally and nationally. The Vols could use that as so many Tennessee fans are beginning to question Heupel. Does Heupel want that narrative to continue into the offseason or have a narrative in which Iamalava is the main topic of conversation? Play Nico.
As for the argument that Iamaleava is too frail because of his size to play college football, well, that argument never really held up. Former Vol quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen were uber-skinny when they made their debuts as freshman for the Vols and both worked out just fine. In fact, Clausen’s first start was against Alabama. Play Nico.
There could also be an argument made that Heupel doesn’t want to rock the ship with his current upperclassmen, that seniors will bail if there is a Nico/youth movement. That could be especially troublesome if the Vols’ upperclassmen decide to bolt before a bowl game. However, with no championships left to play for, it doesn’t matter. It’s time to play Nico.
Only those in Tennessee’s practices day in and day out truly know if Iamaleava is ready for the massive jump to college football. However, sources have told Off The Hook Sports for weeks that Iamaleava has been ready to play since October. Those same sources have said that Milton would continue to be the starter no matter what happened this season, barring an injury or a total collapse at the quarterback position. So far, those sources have been absolutely correct.
If Heupel doesn’t play Iamaleava this season, one has to wonder if the highly-touted freshman hasn’t lived up to the hype in practice or, which is much more likely, Heupel is a bit stubborn. The latter is easy to imagine given Heupel’s past decisions. Perhaps Heupel should have made a move sooner at quarterback. There’s no looking back now with the best program in college football coming to Knoxville. It’s all-or-nothing this week. My advice? You guessed it.