Nico Iamaleava proves worth the money in Citrus Bowl and the five-star is the future of Tennessee football

Nico Iamaleava made waves with speculation about his NIL deal before he even got to Knoxville, but no matter the price it took, it looks like it was worth it for the Volunteers. Tennessee may be a dark-horse to win the SEC.
 Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Nico Iamaleava (8)
Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Nico Iamaleava (8) / Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2023 recruiting class, there were five five-star quarterbacks and already, two have moved on to different schools. Dante Moore has transferred away from UCLA and Malachi Nelson is leaving USC. At Texas, Arch Manning will likely sit behind Quinn Ewers for another season, but two of the top quarterbacks got their first in bowl season and will take over their program in 2024. 

Jackson Arnold, the No. 4 quarterback in the class, started for Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl and went 26/45 for 361 yards and two touchdowns, but threw three interceptions in the 38-24 loss to Arizona. Then, on New Year’s Day, it was Nico Iamaleava’s turn to showcase why he was the No. 2 quarterback in the loaded freshman class. 

Iamaleava first became a household name, though a challenging one to pronounce for many (including the guy who announced him as the MVP of the Citrus Bowl) when it was speculated that he received an $8 million NIL deal to attend Tennessee. 

It’s never been revealed what exactly Iamaleava has brought in through NIL deals, but whatever the number, he appears to be worth it. Against Iowa on Monday at Camping World Stadium in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl, Iamaleava only went 12/19 for 151 yards and a touchdown as a passer, and he ran for three touchdowns in the 35-0 Tennessee win. 

That performance came against an Iowa team that ranked No. 5 in the country in total defense, only allowed 13.2 points per game, and had given up just four total rushing touchdowns all season. 

The 6-foot-6 California native had only attempted 26 passes this season, but he looked comfortable from the first snap, completing a pass to tight end Tyler Warren for nine yards. 

Tennessee’s first drive was stalled out by a holding call on an Iamaleava scramble, and the Iowa defense kept the game scoreless through the first quarter, but to start the second quarter, he led Tennessee on a seven-play 73-yard drive capped off by a 15-yard touchdown. 

In 2022, Tennessee’s offense was nearly unstoppable with Hendon Hooker at quarterback. Josh Heupel was a master of stretching a defense horizontally pre-snap and exposing them vertically with speed after the snap. This year, Joe Milton III had all the arm strength, but none of the touch or accuracy to recreate Hooker’s success. In the Citrus Bowl, Iamaleava proved that he has it all. 

The passing numbers don’t even tell the whole story. Some of Iamaleava’s best throws were incompletions, like a tight-window slant dropped by Ramel Keaton with 2:07 left in the first quarter, or a beautiful deep ball in the second half from midfield to the front corner of the end zone that for some reason Keaton just gave up on.  A good day passing could have been even better.

The SEC is only getting tougher next season with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, but if you have a quarterback then you have a shot and the Vols have a quarterback. Outside of Jalen Milroe, he could even be the best one.

Iamaleava’s first test will come on September 21, 2024, in Norman against Jackson Arnold and Oklahoma, but after what we’ve seen this bowl season, the Vols will have an advantage at the most important position on the field. 

A trip to Athens will be a problem, but Alabama has to come to Neyland Stadium on the third Saturday in October. This year, Heupel’s third, was a disappointment for the Vols who finished 9-4, but Iamaleava can absolutely guide this team to one of the 12 spots in the College Football Playoff in 2024. That chance is worth every dime of whatever NIL package he got. 

The 2023 playoff features four of the best quarterbacks in the country. Yes, Michigan, Alabama, Washington, and Texas all have other great players on their rosters, but to win in college football in the 2020s, quarterback can’t be a weakness anymore. The team on the losing end of the Citrus Bowl proved that.

This season, it was a weakness for the Vols. Frankly, other than Hendon Hooker, Tennessee hasn’t had a championship-caliber QB since around the turn of the century. That won't be the case anymore.

Bowl season has lost its luster for many reasons, with opt-outs, the games just don’t mean as much. The value they do have is as a window into the future and you might want to wear sunglasses if you look through Tennessee's because it might be as bright as any team in the country.

Heupel will need to make sure he has enough help on offense, but Tennessee fans have every reason to think of themselves as a dark horse to dethrone the top dogs in the SEC next season. Players who can singularly change the outlook of an entire program are rare, but Iamaleava might be one of them.

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