Practice proving very beneficial for Iamaleava entering debut season with Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee five-star freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava, left, listens to sixth-year senior starter Joe Milton III during a recent preseason practice in Knoxville.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee five-star freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava, left, listens to sixth-year senior starter Joe Milton III during a recent preseason practice in Knoxville.

Tennessee held its 10th preseason football practice Sunday, bringing the Volunteers another step closer to their Sept. 2 opener against Virginia in Nashville and providing Nico Iamaleava with a little more experience.

The five-star freshman quarterback is racking up the workout time in Josh Heupel's system, having gone through practices last December for the Orange Bowl pairing with Clemson and again during the spring. Iamaleava (pronounced ee-ah-MAH-LAY-ah-va) was put on a fast track in a fast offense two weeks after the Orange Bowl, when Tayven Jackson transferred to Indiana and left the 6-foot-6, 200-pounder as the unquestioned backup to sixth-year senior starter Joe Milton III.

"The speed of everything has been a big change for me, and it was definitely a shock at first," Iamaleava said in a recent news conference. "You can see it from the outside looking in, but once you're in the offense and you've got live bullets flying and you've got to run the offense, it's very different. That took me a little bit to adjust to. My footwork in this system took a little bit to get used to.

"I'm getting used to the speed and to college in general now, and that's why coming in early was a great thing for me."

The Vols are scheduled to be off Monday before resuming practice Tuesday and scrimmaging a second time Wednesday.

Given that Tennessee is a 28-point favorite against the Cavaliers and faces Austin Peay second, Iamaleava could see significant playing time before a Sept. 16 trek to Florida. Vols first-year offensive coordinator and third-year quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said earlier this month that he has "huge confidence" in Iamaleava should he be needed to replace Milton.

"He did a great job this spring, just getting thrust into the two reps," Halzle said. "A lot of freshmen come in and are going against other freshmen, but he was going up against linebackers who have played four years of college football. Coach (Tim) Banks had the entire disposal of his defense that he could throw at him, so he did a great job of handling that."

Ranked the No. 2 prospect nationally behind Texas freshman quarterback Arch Manning by both Rivals.com and 247Sports.com in the 2023 signing class, Iamaleava threw for 1,726 yards and 25 touchdowns last season at Warren High School in Long Beach, California. He also rushed for 399 yards and six scores.

Iamaleava was 8-of-16 passing for 112 yards at April's Orange & White game inside Neyland Stadium and has altered his throwing form a bit under Halzle's tutelage.

"He's told me to drive more off my back hip," Iamaleava said. "That's been the main thing. I was throwing a lot of off-platform throws, and you can make those throws, but they're not as good at all times.

"He just wants me to use my power to make regular throws."

Iamaleava is trying to avoid any kind of five-star hype, pointing out that he has started over and is having to prove himself at a new level. Yes, he is still a freshman, but he is a freshman who already has significant practice time under his belt against veteran opposition.

"It's been fun getting to know all the guys since I ran scout team in bowl practices, and it was fun getting reps against the first defense," Iamaleava said. "I've really just been focused on grinding."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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