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National attention on Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava includes criticism

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Greg McElroy has seen enough of Nico Iamaleava to believe in Tennessee’s quarterback.

McElroy, a college football analyst for ESPN and former national title winning quarterback at Alabama, recently shared “one fair statement” about each SEC football team on his Always College Football podcast.

When he got to Tennessee, McElroy focused on the Vols’ rising star at quarterback.

“Nico Iamaleava feels like he’s the answer,” McElroy said.

McElroy based that statement off the tape of Iamaleava’s performance against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.

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McElroy went as far as to say that “Tennessee could have the breakout star in college football this upcoming year.”

It wasn’t the overall statistics from Iamaleava’s performance against Iowa that wowed McElroy (although the four total touchdowns stood out).

Iamaleava attempted just 19 passes and threw for 151 yards in the game.

Besides the stats, McElroy pointed to the way Iamaleava handled himself in his first career start.

“If you look at the numbers and dive into that performance, the numbers don’t go out of control; they don’t jump out,” McElroy said. “But a couple of things that did was the athleticism. For a guy that’s that long, he can move laterally … and he’s pretty decisive and has some good agility, too. And while he didn’t throw it a ton in that game – just 19 pass attempts – it looks like he’s very comfortable throwing on the move.”

Iamaleava’s talent and debut combined with Tennessee coach Josh Heupel’s offense has already created hype for the Vols entering 2024.

Iamaleava was ranked as high as the nation’s No. 1 overall player in the 2023 class.

And he’s among the top 10 players receiving early Heisman Trophy odds for the 2024 season.

The memory of Hendon Hooker’s performance at quarterback for Tennessee has created excitement over what Iamaleava might be able to do.

Iamaleava looks like a quarterback built to run Heupel’s offense.

But Iamaleava must improve, too.

McElroy shared a few areas of Iamaleava’s game that he should work on as he prepares for his first full season as a starter in college.

“There were a few times too when you dive in he probably left the pocket a little too early,” McElroy said, “probably was a little anxious to get out of the pocket. It’s a little bit cleaner when you escape the pocket but it does shrink the read by half. 

“When you exit in one direction, which he most notably did to his right, then you’re only going to have two, maybe three wide receivers to that side. So maybe hanging in the pocket a little bit more will be a heavy focus this spring.”

So while Iamaleava has plenty to work on (and what second-year quarterback doesn’t?), McElroy believes in Iamaleava and his potential to help Tennessee succeed.

“You can tell the (high) ceiling is there just in one game of legitimate work against what I think is a high quality defense out there that he was facing in the Iowa Hawkeyes,” McElroy said.”

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