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Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava needs to surpass an all-time Vol great

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Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava has mastered one of the concerns about him when he signed with the Vols in 2023. Another aspect of his game is currently under construction.

Now a starting quarterback in the SEC, Iamaleava’s knows his physical gifts will only carry him so far. It’s what Iamaleava can handle from the shoulder pads up and how he’s able to lead his teammates with his heart that will determine just how good – or great – he can be.

Let’s start with the physical tools. Iamaleava may not be as physically gifted as the quarterback he’s replacing, former UT quarterback Joe Milton, but Iamaleava is an elite thrower with more touch than Milton, ability to throw on the ground and from different arm angles than Milton and, by all accounts, every bit as accepted as the leader of the Vols’ offense. Now, can Iamaleava be the leader that former Vol quarterback Hendon Hooker was? That’s a far higher mark to shoot for.

Iamaleava is already big enough for him survive in the SEC. The 6-foot-6 athlete said he has gone from around 180 to 185 pounds to 215 pounds in the short time he’s been at Tennessee, just in the 15 months he’s been around the program.

Iamaleava’s mental grasp of the playbook has never been in question, but he’ll have to show during games that he has a complete grasp of what Heupel wants him to be. Something tells me that won’t be a problem, but that’s always a concern, even though Iamaleava already dominated a Top-25 team, Iowa, in the Citrus Bowl in his first collegiate start.

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“Everybody is paying attention to that position and what Iamaleava already has mastered,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “You better have some of those traits right from the jump. The hard thing for a young quarterback on the leadership side of it is that you’re still pushing extremely hard on the fundamentals, growth, mastering of our offense, and what’s going on on the other side of the ball. 

“He does a phenomenal job in one-on-one situations, communication with wide receivers after a series, offensive lines. The growth of his voice within our entire program, he’s going to have to continue to grow in that role. That’s something that’s true for every young quarterback. I expect him to continue, to mold into that.”

Said Iamaleava, “I know what I came here to do and it’s my job to go get that done.”

As much as that may sound like a line from “The Terminator,” it has some people, including me, wondering. What would deem Iamaleava’s career a success at Tennessee. Let’s assume he just plays two more years before enteing the NFL Draft in 2026. Can he win an SEC or national championship by overcoming Georgia, the elite program in college football, before he’s gone?

If Iamaleava can’t win an SEC championship at Tennessee, will his career be deemed a failure or a missed opportunity even if he plays well? That sounds familiar. Former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning put up some pretty big numbers against Florida in the 1990’s and never could beat the Gators nor win a national championship during his career. So what if Iamaleava can never get past Georgia? Could he still be considering great? Perhaps, but it’s doubtful.

Manning was a generational kind of talent. He was going to be great no matter what was happening around him. Although, most will wonder if he got a bit tight around the Gators during college. Will Iamaleava have some sort of gaping Achilles heel like that on his resume? Well, if he does, it doesn’t seem he’ll be very surprised if he’s remembered as very, very good and not elite, at least in college.

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