By: Elijah Hixson
Junior Staff Writer
The All Vol Call in Show
Fans across the country have been buzzing after Tennessee True Freshman Quarterback Nico Iamaleava shined in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl.
After an eight-win regular season behind Senior QB Joe Milton, Tennessee’s attention turned to the future when Milton announced a few days before the Citrus Bowl that he would be turning his focus to the 2024 NFL draft process and would not play in the game. This meant Coach Josh Heupel would turn the keys of the offense over to the Freshman. The 6’6, 195 lb. kid from Long Beach, Cal, was a top three-rated recruit across multiple recruiting websites in the 2023 cycle.
Iamaleava was making headlines before he even enrolled at the University. It was reported that when he committed in March of 2022, he had signed a deal with Sprye Sports Group to earn 8 million dollars in Name Image and Likeness (NIL) sponsors over three years. This type of Deal was the first of its kind. Naturally, this put Iamaleava and Tennessee in the spotlight, with many asking the big question. Is he worth it?
The Hawkeyes seemed to be a formidable opponent for the youngster in his first start, as they ranked in at number five for total defense going into the game. The Hawkeyes allowed the ninth fewest air yards in the country this season, and aside from First-team All-American Cornerback Cooper Dejean opting out, the Hawkeyes had an almost fully intact defense come Monday. The astounding defense of the Hawkeyes is what helped them in reaching a Big Ten Championship game this season. Iowa only gave up more than twenty points in games twice this season. Both ended in losses against the tenth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions and the Number-one-ranked Michigan Wolverines in the Conference Championship—a feat that led them to a 10-win season.
Tennessee and The Freshman went on to clobber the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes 36-0. Iamaleava ended the game with four total touchdowns. Three of which came off some awe-inspiring runs. The three rushing touchdowns by Iamaleava tied the record for most rushing touchdowns in a bowl game in school history with Joshua Dobbs and James Stewart. In the passing game, Iamaleava threw for 151 yards and a Touchdown. With its Defense pitching a shutout, Iamaleava and Tennessee didn’t have to do much through the air. The Volunteers scored the most points this season against the top 5 defense, being the first team to drop thirty-plus on the Hawkeyes.
Even though he only threw 19 passes, the youngster showed flashes of being a fantastic passer. His ball had elite zip, making 15-yard passes look effortless. The kid also showed a natural instinct in the pocket, knowing when to take a sack, throw it away, or tuck it and run. He kept his eyes upfield out of the pocket, hitting on a few passes while on the run. These abilities show glimpses of what fans hope to be an illustrious career. According to many of his current and former coaches, he has an excellent work ethic, meaning these flashes can blossom into something extraordinary.
Fans are in good spirits as Tennessee is returning most of the offensive line while also searching to add some outstanding talent to the portal in that area. The Volunteers also look to have an elite Wide Receiver room to compliment the kid as they added the coveted 6’5, 195 lb. Transfer Chris Brazzell from Tulane to a room that returns almost every starter, including fan favorite Bru McCoy, who has decided to stay one more season after a gruesome injury against South Carolina earlier this season. The backfield also looks dangerous as Junior Dylan Sampson rushed for 133 yards in the bowl game against Iowa, the most against that defense this season, which ranked 15th against the run. Sampson gives the Volunteer offense a nice balance, as fans believe the 2024 Tennessee offense can be something great.
Even after what a lot consider to be a disappointing season, Nico Iamaleava gives fans a glimmer of hope for the future. Can the kid from Long Beach, California, bring a National Championship to Rocky Top for the first time in 25 years? Buckle up, Vol Nation. The answer to that question will be answered very soon.