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Just one former Vol can compete with Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava hype

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Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava is proving to be one of a kind and he’s only started one game.

As I discussed Iamaleava with co-host Caleb Calhoun on Wednesday, it occurred to me that there has never been any player more highly anticipated than Iamaleava, who made his first start in a 35-0 win over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1. There are a few reasons for that. First, media coverage.

One had to be pretty devout to get recruiting news before Al Gore invented the internet. There wasn’t as much information to hype a player, like former quarterback Peyton Manning, when he signed with Tennessee. Now, the college football recruiting hype machine can stand toe-to-toe with any public relations firm in the nation. There’s a constant churn of news about prospects, especially those like Iamaleava, who was a five-star prospect, one of the very highest-rated prospects in his class and comes with a little bit of California flare.

That kind of coverage can be dangerous too early. Former Tennessee quarterback Jonathan Crompton felt the brunt of fan criticism after he signed with the Vols as a highly rated prospect and didn’t win as many games as expected. It didn’t seem to matter that the Vols’ entire football program was circling down the drain at the time. Crompton took the heat because fans knew about him long before he ever stepped on campus.

If you’re a big Tennessee fan, you’ve known about Iamaleava for years – literally. That was way before he signed with the Vols or even took a practice snap. Iamaleava was that highly thought of when he committed to the Vols’ 2023 class. Iamaleava isn’t the first prospect to be the jewel of a class – not even close. There are plenty of headliners in previous classes through the years, but none have created the kind of excitement that Iamaleava has – not even Manning. However, there is one Vol that may have excited Tennessee’s fan base even more than Iamaleava, if there’s one at all.

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Imagine the coverage and the hype that would be generated if a national championship winning coach who had just guided his star player to a Heisman Trophy left that school to return to his alma mater. Think that would get Kirk Herbstreit talking? You bet.

Johnny Majors returned to Tennessee to become its head coach in 1977 after being a star player for the Vols in the late 1950’s and leading Pittsburgh to a national title with star tailback Tony Dorsett leading the way. That’s a tough backstory for any high school prospect to overcome. However, it’s the only situation that can top Iamaleava’s ascension to being a household name in college football circles.

Let’s be clear. Iamaleava has looked mature beyond his years, has all the talent needed to be a star and will most likely be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC – if not the nation – next season. However, he’s still only started one game, and that was against a defense that wasn’t ready for his skillset considering Iowa was expecting former UT quarterback Joe Milton III to take the field throughout most of their bowl practice. While it might be necessary to pump the breaks just a bit, I’m keeping my foot on the gas pedal with Iamaleava and that has nothing to do with his play against the Hawkeyes.

I was first impressed by Iamaleava after speaking to team leaders who said he was just different, that he carried himself with confidence, but wasn’t cocky and that his talent matched his recruiting rankings. That was in December – 2022 – when he showed up early for bowl practice.

I never wavered on Iamaleava even as he sat the bench. There were just too many people within Tennessee’s program that had seen him extensively at practice, consistently playing at a high level, to make me believe he could possibly be a bust just because Milton was treated ever-so-kindly as he seemed content just to throw the ball as far as he possibly could. Now, here’s where my opinion on Iamaleava changed slightly based on the Iowa game.

I didn’t think the Vols would have had a better record than their 8-4 run in the regular season with Iamaleava instead of Milton. I’m now reconsidering that.

It it outlandish to think that Iamaleava would have been more adept at handling Tennessee’s offense against Florida without center Cooper Mays, who was sidelined against the Gators. I don’t think so anymore. Starting a freshman in The Swamp with a banged up offensive line sounds pretty daunting, but not so much for Iamaleava. And how about that Alabama game?

Tennessee had the Crimson Tide on the ropes for a half but didn’t score enough in the red-zone to hold up in the second half. Iamaleava looked pretty good in the red zone against Iowa in which he ran for three touchdowns. Plus, I feel pretty confident that the Vols would have gotten better quarterback play in the second half to survive a Crimson Tide surge had they had Iamaleava in the game instead of Milton. 

As for the Missouri and Georgia losses, the Vols clearly played poorly in all facets against the Tigers and Tennessee isn’t yet at Georgia’s level. Iamaleava can’t play defense. However, I still would have liked the Vols’ chances in either contest with Iamaleava over Milton.

That brings into question the decision not to play Iamaleava earlier, which I’ve never understood. However, like a great movie trailer, the 2023 season has set the bar higher than a Martin Scorsese movie. Majors’ return provided mixed results for Tennessee for over a decade. Iamaleava won’t have that long, but mixed results aren’t what UT fans are anticipating. 

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