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Grading Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava’s on field support

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Before five-star recruit Nico Iamaleava made his starting debut for Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl, many referenced the debut of another prized recruit: Peyton Manning.

On Oct. 1, 1994, Manning got his first start against a team with a stout defense: Washington State.

The Vols unveiled a very conservative game plan. Manning was 7 of 14 for 79 yards. The Vols relied on a 61-yard reverse by Nilo Silvan and a stingy defense to win 10-9.

After the game, I asked then-UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe if the conservative play calling was due to not yet trusting Manning.

“No,” Cutcliffe said. “I didn’t trust our receivers.”

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UT entered that game with a banged up receiving corps. Cutcliffe had faith in Manning, but not the guys he would throw to.

Fast forward to present day.

Iamaleava played well in his maiden start against an Iowa defense that was ranked No. 5 in the nation. Iamaleava was 11 of 19 for 151 yards and one score while running for three touchdowns.

He was much more productive in his first start than was Manning, although it should be pointed out Manning was playing in Game 5 of the 1994 season, Iamaleava was in Game 13.

Iamaleava had a nice supporting cast, but he was without UT’s top two running backs and two of its top four wideouts.

Iamaleava showed great promise in the 35-0 rout of overrated Iowa. But how he performs this season will rest, to a large degree, on his supporting cast.

As talented as Iamaleava is, he can’t do it alone. He’ll need help from his offensive line, his running backs, his receivers, his tight ends and his play caller.

Let’s take a look at UT’s supporting cast now, knowing the transfer portal could change these dynamics any day.

Wide Receiver

UT is solid at wide receiver, but not as talented as the 2022 group. The return of Bru McCoy is huge. He caught 52 passes in 2022 as the No. 3 receiver behind Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman. He could have another 52-catch season if he stays healthy.

Squirrel White had 63 catches for 803 yards and two touchdowns from the slot. He can catch quick screens, quick slants or go deep. He’s more of a complementary receiver.

Dont’e Thornton, the touted Oregon transfer, was unproductive until he was moved from the slot to wideout. He started to make an impact and had 13 catches for 224 yards but, ironically, suffered a season-ending injury on his lone touchdown reception.

Chris Brazzell, the 6-foot-5 Tulane transfer, needs to make an immediate impact. He caught 44 passes for the Green Wave, with seven going for 30-plus yards.

Mike Matthews, a five-star who is already enrolled at UT and went through bowl practice, also needs to make an immediate impact.

Returners Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb are serviceable, but neither scares a defense.

The receiving corps could be one of the top five in the SEC, but that depends on how quickly Brazzell, Matthews and Thornton produce.

Grade: B

Running Back

At running back, it’ll be hard to replace 1,000-yard rusher Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small, who had over 2,000 career yards. But Dylan Sampson is a game changer – he had 133 rush yards against Iowa’s stout run defense —  and can catch out of the backfield. He must improve his pass protection.

Cam Seldon is a bigger back with good speed. He has a chance to be better than Small.

Redshirt freshman Khalifa Keith and signee Peyton Lewis could provide depth.

Grade: B-

Tight End

Tight end Ethan Davis needs to stay healthy. He was one of the top-rated recruits in the 2023 class.

Holden Staes, the Notre Dame transfer, could be a big help. He was rated the No. 1 tight end in the transfer portal.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

The offensive line was thought to return four starters until tackle Gerald Mincey entered the transfer portal. Still, the Vols have a good nucleus with left tackle John Campbell and center Cooper Mays and the expected return of Javontez Spraggins after a torn MCL in Game 11.

Tennessee needs to find a guard and a tackle in the portal, or have current linemen emerge.

Tennessee’s offense line would rate no better than the middle of the SEC pack, but UT’s fast-pace offense has proven you don’t have a have a dominant line to have a high-scoring offense.

Grade: C

Under Joe Milton, UT went from averaging 46 points per game to 31.5.

With UT’s current roster and Iamaleava’s skill set, look for the Vols to average about 38 points per game – and look a lot smoother doing it.

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