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“He never had those big wide eyes like he was scared of anything.” Tennessee TE Jacob Warren on QB Nico Iamaleava

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Even though he did not start a regular-season game for Tennessee in 2023, there has been sizable buzz around freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava all year. Though his action was relegated to garbage time situations, the youngster impressed fans. When he finally got his chance to start and play an entire game – the 2024 Citrus Bowl – he lived up to the hype with a 35-0 win over Iowa. On the latest Vol Report, C Cooper Mays and TE Jacob Warren shared their thoughts on what impressed them about Iamaleava against Iowa and what we can expect next season from the incoming sophomore.  

With QB Joe Milton III opting out of the bowl game to declare for the NFL Draft, the young Iamaleava got the starting job for the Citrus Bowl. One would assume the pressure on the 19-year-old’s shoulders would be palpable. But, if he was nervous, his teammates didn’t notice.

“One thing I was really happy with when we were actually playing (was) just his poise and his confidence,” said Warren on Iamaleava. like he was scared of anything. He was out there commanding the huddle. He went out there, balled out and had the most confidence in the world.” 

Confidence is also the word Mays used to describe Iamaleava’s demeanor during the bowl game. “It’s never easy for a kid to be in that position,” noted Mays. “A 19-year-old kid going out there and having to play against grown men. I think he did a really nice job staying calm and being a confident kid, but I expected that from him.” 

Why was it expected? “(Iamaleava) doesn’t handle himself like he’s young,” said Mays. Warren agreed, “It was no surprise that he went out there and played as well as he did because I watched him all week prepare – the right way – to be able to go out there and be successful.” 

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Another thing that impressed Warren was Iamaleava’s resiliency when things weren’t going the Vols’ way. “He took a few hits and there were some penalties,” recalled Warren, “There was some adversity that we faced throughout the game. It was cool to see him just bounce up. He’ll take a hit, take a shot or get sacked. He bounces up and we’re running off like nothing happened. His ability to handle stuff like that I think was really, really big… and that showed me, yeah, he’s ready to play.”

With the excitement and the pressure riding on the young man’s shoulders, what advice do those who have played with Iamaleava have for him? “I would say, ‘Be where your feet are,’” said Mays. “Attack every day and make the most out of it… be super locked in to your workouts, your film study and extra work.” 

The anticipation for Iamaleava to play in 2024 is so high, he is already being mentioned in circles for a big collegiate football award. “(Iamaleava) being able to settle down… I think that that’s going to be big for him,” said Warren. “For them to be projecting you to be a Heisman candidate weeks after the season ended and you’ve only started one game, I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid. But to be honest, I don’t think he probably even particularly cares to look at all that stuff. So, I think it’ll be just fine.” 

Mays agrees. “It doesn’t really matter what anybody else thinks. It’s not even real – pressure and everything. There are so many opportunities to get better all throughout the day so just focus on that. You don’t really have time to worry about the other stuff so it’s not really hard.”

What does a commanding win over the Hawkeyes do for Iamaleava going into the next season? “It probably gives him a feeling like he belongs,” said Mays. “It’s going to give him some reassurance and confidence going into the offseason. He can carry that momentum into fall camp and spring.”  

“I think that there’s so much hype around him that he’s going to go out there and have a great season,” said Warren on Iamaleava. “We’ll see how he handles this offseason. We’ll see how he comes back and gets the guys around him to make a lot of plays and he’ll be just fine.” 

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