Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 11, 2023

Vols love Iamaleava – but only in an emergency

Iamaleava says incumbent quarterback Joe Milton III “really took me in when I first got here, and I have always appreciated him for that,” - Photo by Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Nico Iamaleava generated plenty of headlines during his recruitment to the University of Tennessee. From his athletic ability to his reported $8 million NIL deal to sign with the Vols, the five-star prospect was in the spotlight.

But if everything goes according to plan for Tennessee this season, Iamaleava won’t be mentioned much over the next few months. The Vols are hoping to see sixth-year senior Joe Milton III excel as the starting quarterback while Iamaleava watches and learns from the sidelines as a true freshman.

The 6-foot-6, 206-pound Iamaleava has impressed the Vols with his humility and willingness to work. He arrived in the spring to get a jump-start on learning the offense and bonding with his teammates.

“Huge confidence in him. That guy is mature beyond his years,” Tennessee offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle says. “He didn’t come in like a true freshman. He came in, one, wanting to learn, not thinking that, ‘I’m a highly rated recruit, I’ve got it figured out.’ Like he came in understanding like, ‘I want to learn, I need to know.’”

Tennessee opened training camp last week with Milton firmly secure as QB1 in the offense. The former Michigan transfer fell to second string behind Hendon Hooker during the 2021 season after being injured.

Once Hooker suffered an ACL injury last season, Milton took over and guided the Vols down the stretch. The Florida native led them to a win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl to cap the 11-win campaign.

Coaches and teammates say Milton has taken his game to a higher level through his work in the offseason.

“Yeah, he’s a completely different guy. Not just player, but his attention to detail is elite,” Halzle says. “He came back after that Clemson game and he was hungry to keep learning to keep pushing forward. He didn’t rest on his laurels, like, ‘all right, cool. I figured it out.’ He pushed. I think he saw the success that he had, and he knows what his talent can do.”

Milton has received a lot of hype over the last few months as the Vols look to carry over the momentum they generated from last season. His powerful arm is a frequent topic of conversation. But Milton insists he’s not one to read his press clippings or spend hours scrolling through apps for compliments.

“To be honest with you, I don’t,” Milton says. “I mean, you see it. You can’t not see it; it’s on social media everywhere. If you go on a sports page, you see my face. It’s cool and all. But at the same time, you have to understand what the main thing is. The main thing is winning. So why not focus on that?”

Milton and Iamaleava have fostered a close relationship that extends beyond the quarterback room. Iamaleava is frequently at Milton’s house playing video games, eating or discussing football.

“Now it’s almost like a big brother, little brother relationship with the two of them. You rarely see Joe without Nico,” Halzle says. “It’s been great for (Nico) to kind of see the way a quarterback should operate on a day-to-day level. Joe’s been a great mentor to him and he’s really helped bring along his development on and off the field.”

Iamaleava is grateful to Milton for helping him learn the ropes.

“He really took me in when I first got here, and I have always appreciated him for that,” he says. “He has been a big brother to me. We just keep going and we’ll see how the season goes.”

Despite being a highly-touted prospect, Iamaleava admits the transition to college football has been an eye-opener. Trying to operate UT’s high-speed offensive attack adds another layer to the process.

“It was definitely a shock,” Iamaleava says. “You can see it from the outside looking in but once you’re actually in the offense and you’ve got live plays flying and you got to run the offense – it’s way different. So, I think that took a little bit for me to adjust to. Just getting the calls out there, getting my reads.”

Iamaleava still has a few more weeks to get up to speed before the actual games begin. His calmness and demeanor give the UT coaches faith he could handle taking snaps in more than just mop-up duty if needed.

“I think the guys believe in him, as well, that if he’s called upon to do a job, like that dude will step in and compete at a high level and perform at a high level,” Halzle says. “So we have a ton of confidence in that guy.”

The quarterback is always a tone setter for any football team. Having a veteran and a rookie like Milton and Iamaleava on the same page and supporting each other through the ups and downs will be vital as the Vols prepare for the season.

“I think it’s really important that those guys have great energy and urgency and that transcends not just through our offense, but also through our football team for all of our players,” UT head coach Josh Heupel says. “This is a game that’s never going to be perfect. Being able to reset from one play to the next, I think, is one of the most important traits that you have as a competitor and as a player in this game.”