Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava with Joe Milton III at practice in Knoxville. Photo by Rocky Top Insider/Ric Butler.
The ninth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers will return to Knoxville this week for their home opener against Austin Peay. The Governors, 0-1 on the season so far, are only being given a one percent chance to win according to ESPN’s services.
In other words, this is a game that Tennessee will roll through en route to their SEC opener next week in Gainesville.
While FCS opponents don’t always provide the most entertaining game for the fans, Saturday’s game does provide another chance for Tennessee freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava to get quality in-game reps.
It also might be one of the last times that Iamaleava can find sustained in-game reps over the next two months, barring an injury to starter Joe Milton. The Vols have six straight opponents ranked within the Top 60 of ESPN’s SP+ rankings from the preseason following the game against Austin Peay.
Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle recently spoke about the importance of getting Iamaleava and other freshman reps early on from a mental standpoint.
“Any kind of action that a freshman can get is hugely beneficial,” Halzle said when asked about Iamaleava on Tuesday. “One is just to take the field in front of that many people, calm your nerves down and trust your eyes. Sometimes, you call a play, and you don’t remember what the play is and it’s like, ‘wait, what is that?’ Getting that adrenaline spike and calming yourself back down is huge.”
Austin Peay won’t be knocking on Tennessee’s door when it comes to the scoreboard this week but that doesn’t mean that the play on the field won’t be extremely valuable to the Vols’ younger players including their freshman quarterback.
“Going against these guys this week, you’re going to get a multitude of pressures and coverages, and it’s going to be great for everyone to see that,” Halzle continued on to say. “That’s a huge eye discipline game. For whether he’s an older backup or a younger guy coming in for his first couple of snaps, it’s a huge game for him to have to define his eyes.”
More from RTI: Joe Milton III’s Most Impressive Play Against Virginia
Iamaleava recorded the first action in his freshman season during the season opener last week against Virginia. As Iamaleava led Tennessee down the field, noticeable “Nico! Nico! Nico!” chants rained down from the Nissan Stadium crowd.
The former five-star quarterback was put in during the fourth quarter of the game and ended up with just two drives – one of which led to a score, though. Iamaleava finished the game 2-of-3 passing for 11 yards and added a strong 8-yard rush up the middle. The Tennessee freshman nearly connected with sophomore wide receiver Kaleb Webb in the endzone but the throw was just out of reach from a height perspective.
Still, though, Iamaleava looked poised while commanding the Tennessee offense, something that the coaching staff has echoed throughout his work during fall training camp.
“I love the feel in the pocket, being able to step up and get out of it and go make a play with his feet,” Josh Heupel said after Iamaleava’s first showing. “He’s athletic enough to be using the run game and escape the pocket. And I thought some of the run-pass stuff, he did a good job. Made an athletic throw, didn’t complete it, but throwing across his body on a little slant route that ended up not being completed. But all in all, really solid performance from him.”
Joe Milton III is unquestionably Tennessee’s quarterback this season. The sixth-year senior led Tennessee to back-to-back wins to close the 2022 season and handily defeated Virginia while accounting for four total touchdowns this past Saturday. But while Hendon Hooker had the very-experienced Joe Milton behind him as a backup, Milton has true freshman Nico Iamaleava as his backup.
Getting Iamaleava some extended runs on Saturday against Austin Peay while Tennessee has the big lead might be an important task for the Vols considering, barring injury, there likely won’t be another time to get this sort of extended action until Tennessee’s homecoming game against UConn on November 4th.
We’ll see what the plan is from Tennessee this weekend, but it would be beneficial for Iamaleava to get more drives this Saturday to add to his repertoire.
No. 9 Tennessee will host Austin Peay this Saturday evening at 5:00 p.m. ET in the home opener in Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium.