Tennessee Vols wrap up spring practice with Nico Iamaleava finally under center


The Nico Iamaleava era finally has arrived at Tennessee.

Sure, the No. 2 quarterback in the 2023 recruiting class debuted in the Vols’ rout of Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. Now the quarterback caps Tennessee’s spring practice Saturday giving fans a glimpse of how much he’s grown before the Vols’ season opener Aug. 31 against Chattanooga.

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

He’s the first quarterback that coach Josh Heupel signed out of high school to run his up-tempo offense at Tennessee. Iamaleava arrived on campus in December 2022 to start learning behind Joe Milton, redshirting after playing in five games in 2023.

When Milton opted out of the bowl game, Iamaleava took over as Tennessee’s starter. He ran for three touchdowns and threw for another score in a 35-0 rout that helped the Vols finish the 2023 season ranked No. 17.

The native of Long Beach, California, has the size at 6-foot-6 and a strong right arm. His legs make him a threat to run, and Iamaleava ranked behind only Arch Manning among quarterbacks and third overall in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings for 2023.

Manning signing with Texas was closely watched because of his family name as the grandson of Archie Manning and nephew of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and Tennessee alum Peyton Manning and two-time Super Bowl champ Eli Manning.

Iamaleava was an equally prized recruit signing with the NIL collective that supports Tennessee athletes, the Volunteer Club founded by Spyre Sports Group. It was among the first and most well-organized to emerge around the country after the NCAA lifted its ban on athletes making money off their fame.

That deal prompted a meeting between NCAA investigators and Tennessee officials in January followed by a scathing letter from Chancellor Donde Plowman to NCAA President Charlie Baker. She ripped the NCAA for creating “extraordinary chaos” by failing to provide clear rules for name, image and likeness for both universities and athletes.

The attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA a day after Plowman’s letter was released. A federal judge granted the AGs a preliminary injunction Feb. 23 barring the NCAA from enforcing NIL rules.

Iamaleava was asked about Plowman and Tennessee officials fighting for athletes this offseason during spring practice. He said it felt great having people “behind the scenes” backing them. He credited Heupel and his staff for keeping the Vols focused on being students and athletes at Tennessee.

“Focus on ball, and I’m glad all that’s past us,” Iamaleava said.

Iamaleava will be on display Saturday at the Orange & White game capping spring practice, though renovations at Neyland Stadium limited attendance to about 10,000 fans. Iamaleava is key to whether the Vols go better than 9-4, especially with the Southeastern Conference adding Texas and Oklahoma.

Among Tennessee’s eight transfer portal additions are wide receiver Chris Brazzell II, who caught 44 passes for 711 yards and five TDs at Tulane. Squirrel White is the Vols’ top returning receiver, and Dont’e Thornton Jr. will try to bounce back from a season-ending injury after transferring from Oregon.

But Iamaleava is the man running an offense with room for improvement. Tennessee ranked 50th averaging only 243.2 yards passing last season with Milton.

Iamaleava has worked to be more vocal not just on offense but for the team as a whole. He also has literally bulked up after arriving on campus weighing about 190 pounds. He’s up to 215, a weight he hopes to maintain into the season. That means eating — a lot.

“Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don’t you know,” Iamaleava said. “But I got to get it done.”

Heupel knows Iamaleava has lots of room to grow. The coach likes what he’s seen of his quarterback talking with receivers and linemen after a series so far.

“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.”

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