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Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava more than solid in Vols debut against Iowa in Citrus Bowl

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Tennessee fans didn’t have to wait long to see what freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava could do when he finally grabbed the reigns as the Vols’ starting quarterback. His elevated level of play was evident on the first drive.

Iamaleava showed his ability and unexplainable comfort level in first start at a Vol in a 35-0 win over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel started his prize freshman with an easy throw early, then Iamaleava showed off how he can make Heupel’s offense special. 

No one had to tell Iamaleava when to leave the pocket as he ran for a long gain. No matter that the play was overturned by a penalty. No matter that Iamaleava had to overcome a drop on a perfectly thrown pass to Ramel Keyton. There weren’t enough mistakes to overcome what Iamaleava brought to the table in Orlando because of one simple thing: presence and the ability to manage the game at a high level. The Vols haven’t had that in quite sometime.

The grace under pressure is what Tennessee has been missing for most of the season under former starter Joe Milton, who decided to opt out of the Citrus Bowl last week after practicing with Tennessee during bowl preparation in Knoxville. The timing was curious until you consider that decision making hasn’t been one of Milton’s strengths.

As for Iamaleava’s strengths, he has an ability that the Vols have been missing since Hendon Hooker moved onto the NFL. Iamaleava’s most impressive ability can’t be measured, like arm strength or straight-ahead speed. The Vols have missed a “presence” at quarterback, whether that’s just leadership or an unease in key situations. Iamaleava, by all accounts, should be able to create a much more stable environment at quarterback. That was evident against the Hawkeyes. If there was a glaring mistake, other than a dropped shotgun snap, that Iamaleava made, I didn’t see it. Moreover, Iamaleava didn’t turn the ball over.

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It’s obvious that Heupel feels more comfortable with Iamaleava at the helm. The rising sophomore was trusted to throw the ball over the middle almost immediately, which wasn’t much of an option beforehand. Heupel also trusted Iamaleava to run a brand-new, quarterback-keeper play that resulted in the game’s first touchdown. That wouldn’t have happened previously. The Vols ran a somewhat similar play that also resulted in a touchdown by Iamaleava.

The Vols have had four freshmen quarterbacks start a bowl game: Peyton Manning, Casey Clausen and Tyler Bray. Chances are Iamaleava’s play will land him somewhere among the trio of former Vols. Chances are Iamaleava won’t be as good as Manning, but far more productive than Bray, who never fully lived up to his potential at Tennessee. Don’t be surprised if Iamaleava is closer to Manning than he is Clausen, who is one of the most underrated players in Tennessee football history.

It’s easy to sit back and watch Iamaleava and grade arm strength, running ability and, even, the way he manages a game. However, Iamaleava should also be judged on being a willing backup when things weren’t going swimmingly ahead of him. Per multiple sources, Iamaleava has been the perfect teammate and hasn’t been begrudged by the fact that he’s been a backup all season. In other words, Iamaleava has put Tennessee football first and foremost above his desires. That’s refreshing in this opt-out world of college football.

Iamaleava finished the Citrus Bowl completing 12 of 19 for 151 yards and 1 passing touchdown and carried the ball 15 times for 27 yards and 3 touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the nation. Sure, thats’ a Big Ten defense, but it’s still pretty stout. It’s stout enough, in fact, that Tennessee fans shouldn’t be concerned about Iamaleava matching up against Alabama or Georgia next season. He might not win, but he won’t be intimidated based on everything we know about his psyche. That certainly wasn’t the case in 2023. 

If you recall, there were questions about the Vols’ leadership at quarterback before the season. Now, those questions will be more along the lines of how good can Tennessee be at quarterback as opposed to how much of a drop off there might be at the position. Iamaleava has already changed the narrative. Why? He just has that presence.

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