Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava with Joe Milton III at practice in Knoxville. Photo by Rocky Top Insider/Ric Butler.
Get ready, folks. Tennessee football begins its 2023 spring practice slate in just over one week, coming up on March 20.
Anticipation has been constantly rising around the Tennessee football team this off-season. And for good reason, too. The Volunteers are coming off their best season since 2001 (11 wins) which was capped off with an Orange Bowl victory over Top 10 Clemson and Dabo Swinney to close down the 2022 calendar. Tennessee is also bringing in the 12th-ranked recruiting class in the nation, led by No. 1 overall prospect, quarterback Nico Iamaleava.
Iamaleava was one of the longer commits in the Vols’ 2023 class, staying a Tennessee commit for roughly eight months before officially signing with the Volunteers. The top-ranked prospect in the class has been extensively evaluated, scouted, and analyzed through his recruitment, but now it’s time to see him on the field.
The native of Long Beach, California made his debut on the Tennessee practice field this past December as an early enrollee during the Vols’ Orange Bowl practices in both Knoxville, TN, and Miami, FL. While he wasn’t ever going to play in the Orange Bowl, just being out on the practice field with the team was a huge leg up before the grind of spring camp officially rolls around in just a handful of days.
Over the weekend, Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel spoke about his recruiting class on 247 Sports’ College Football Recruiting Show.
“We’ve gotten a chance for a lot of these [class of] 23s to be part of our bowl experience,” Heupel said to 247’s Emily Proud. “Have close to 15 practices with us, the opportunity to travel down to South Beach and get ready to play in the Orange Bowl, being able to be in that kind of environment and feel it. I think it really helps springboard what they’ve already done since they’ve been here on campus.”
Complimenting the 18 players that Tennessee already has in the building, Heupel spoke a bit about his newest quarterback on campus.
“The player is extremely special,” Heupel said about Iamaleava. “You can watch the tape for two, three, or four plays and see some really special gifts. And the further you dive into it, the more that you see and recognize”
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While there hasn’t been a ton of action on the field, both Heupel and quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle have noted Iamaleava’s impressive early abilities on the grass. From his body control to his throwing accuracy, there are certainly great starting points here in the first stages of his Tennessee career. But with his first official spring camp not having occurred yet, Heupel has been seemingly more impressed by his off-the-field character.
If there’s one thing that’s clear about Heupel in his first two years at Tennessee, it’s how much he appreciates good pieces for the culture and good teammates in the locker room.
“But what I’ve loved about [Nico Iamaleava] is from the moment he’s gotten here, he’s been a great teammate,” Heupel said. “He cares about the people around him. He’s selfless, he’s humble. He works extremely hard, too. And the players around him see that. In the short time that we’ve had him for bowl prep, all the way up until where we are right now getting ready to kick off our spring ball, he’s made great strides and understandings. He’s got a great feel for his body. But he does have an impact on the people around him. And great players at the quarterback position have an ability to attract people inside the locker room, to have people follow him, and to raise the level of expectations that surround, not just the individual player, but the players that he comes in contact with. And Nico certainly has done that in a good way. Can’t wait to get out on the grass here in spring ball with him.”
Joey Halzle, Tennessee’s quarterback’s coach for the past two seasons, was promoted to the Vols’ vacant offensive coordinator position this past February. During his introductory press conference, Halzle told the media about his message to quarterback Nico Iamaleava and the other freshmen with spring camp starting in March.
“The biggest thing about freshmen getting here, whether it is December for bowl practice or in spring ball, is they get a chance to mess it up,” Joey Halzle said. “They are going to, I have told them that. ‘You are going to mess it up, do not play timid, do not play slow trying to be right, play fast as you can, rip it all over the field, make your mistakes, we will come into the film room and learn from them, and we will go back out there and try to make less each day as we are moving forward.’ It gives you the chance that, when fall camp comes around, they are not trying to figure out what to do, they have run all of this before, they have seen all of these different defensive looks, and now they are finding themselves as a player and how they operate in the system, which now gives you a chance to actually go operate with live fire in the fall.”
Iamaleava, Heupel, Halzle, and the 2023 Tennessee football team will begin spring camp in Knoxville behind closed doors on Monday, Mar. 20, 2023. Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for practice footage and notes throughout the spring.
Tennessee will cap off spring camp with the re-debut of the Orange & White Game in front of fans. The spring game was played on the Vols’ practice field last season due to the construction that was happening at Neyland Stadium.
The Orange & White game will take place on April 15, 2023.