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Tennessee QB Nico Iamaleava can indeed be a Heisman candidate now for Vols

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Tennessee fans want nothing but super stardom from quarterback Nico Iamaleava. Based off of Josh Heupel’s record at Tennessee, that might not be asking too much.

Can the redshirt freshman actually be a true Heisman contender this season? That’s asking a lot no matter how highly rated a prospect might be.

Heupel is known as a coach who can field a great offense and an even better quarterback. However, there’s no replacing in-season learning. Iamaleava, who has started just one game for the Vols, may be incredible in 2024, but it’s difficult to judge him from an overmatched Iowa team in the Citrus Bowl. 

Things will get much tougher for Iamaleava in the SEC this fall, but the Iowa game should give him and his teammates confidence in his play. The Iowa game is surely already helping Iamaleava’s Heisman campaign. Why? Because he’s practically a household name in college football already. Of course, there’s another reason for that.

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Heisman voters will tune in to see the player who was at the forefront of Tennessee’s lawsuit against the NCAA. Some might actually be rooting against Iamaleava since he was a part of the movement that vastly changed the status quo. Still, they’ll be watching – just like they watched former Vol quarterback Hendon Hooker.

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Hooker made a valiant run at a Heisman Trophy in 2022 before he fell to the turf at South Carolina with a season-ending knee injury. Hooker should have been a Heisman candidate. As the highest-rated quarterback in the SEC that season, he should have also been invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony had he remained healthy – and he likely would have. 

Hooker wasn’t nearly as good in 2021, which was his first season as a starter at Tennessee, as he was in 2022. After taking over for Joe Milton, who was injured, Hooker finished the season as the top rated passer in the SEC as well. So maybe Iamaleava can, indeed, hit the ground running – and throwing.

The eye test would indicate that Hooker was considerably better in 2022. However, the statistics don’t indicate as much. Hooker’s quarterback ranking in 2021 was actually better in his first season. 

Hooker’s quarterback rating in 2022 was actually six points lower than 2021, from a 181.41 to a 175.51, respectively. Still, no one talked about Hooker and the Heisman Trophy before the 2022 season. Iamaleava, for whatever reason, has much more publicity than Hooker, who quietly transferred form Virginia Tech while the Vols were reorganizing.

The Heisman Trophy isn’t very popular in Knoxville and it shouldn’t be. Tennessee has had two strong candidates for the award, quarterback Peyton Manning and halfback Johnny Majors. Both missed out on the ultimate award in college football amidst questionable circumstances. That would all change if Iamaleava brought the trophy to East Tennessee. 

It seems incredibly odd to say that a first-year starter can truly compete for the Heisman Trophy, but Iamaleava can. He has the preseason publicity that is so valuable, the media will be invested in him and he is widely expected to play a high level, but just how high? Heisman high? That may not be asking too much

Iamaleava will also have a much better roster than Hooker had in 2021. It’s debatable whether or not the Vols are as talented as they were in 2022 as coach Josh Heupel has recently expressed during the Big Orange Caravan. However, talent is just a part of winning the Heisman Trophy. 

Some publicity, good or bad, and Heupel’s ability to develop quarterbacks should make Iamaleava a true Heisman contender this season. Tennessee fans won’t have to wait for him to have a year under his belt. With Hooker, Heupel proved he’s capable of unfathomable results.

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