COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl - Iowa vs Tennessee
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Off the field, Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava could help change college football forever. The NCAA and the state of Tennessee are entangled in a federal antitrust lawsuit (of which Virginia is a co-plaintiff) over the legality of the association's name, image and likeness (NIL) guidelines. The legal battle stems from an ongoing NCAA investigation into potential major violations at the University of Tennessee for NIL dealings across multiple sports. 

CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd reported that the NCAA's inquiry in football centers around Iamaleava, who signed a record contract with Spyre Sports Group. Spyre is Tennessee's primary collective and a member of the The Collective Association, a trade association of 30-plus collectives across the country.

I fully expect the NCAA to lose this fight, but it felt like a good time to see what all the fuss is about with Iamaleava, the No. 2 player in the 2023 recruiting class who chose the Volunteers over plenty of other big programs.

I went back and watched Iamaleava's lone college start: Tennessee's 35-0 dismantling of Iowa in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl. Iamaleava finished the game with only 151 yards passing but threw a touchdown and ran for three more. More important than his numbers or his team's overall performance, I wanted to get an idea of the player.

Long story short, there's reason to be excited if you're a Tennessee fan. The talent was obvious, even if the gameplan was expectedly simplified. Still, Iamaleava made his first career start against an Iowa defense that's thrived on confusing quarterbacks and forcing turnovers for years. There were mistakes and missed opportunities, but Iamaleava didn't turn the ball over and showed the kind of playmaking ability that can help win games.

We'll start with the game's opening touchdown. It's unclear whether this was a check from the sideline, but either way, it was a smart play call. At the top of the formation, Iowa has one defensive back in man. At the bottom, Iowa has four defenders accounting for three Tennessee receivers. That means the Hawkeyes have five defenders in the box and six when the safety begins creeping towards the line of scrimmage before the snap. The Vols have the numbers advantage for a QB draw. Between the offensive line and running back, it's six blockers for six defenders. As the play goes, every block is picked up, and Iamaleava has a wide-open lane for the score. But even if the blocks aren't picked up, he can win a one-on-one with the safety.

What sticks out about the play is that while Tennessee has used past quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton as runners in the offense, neither of them look like the same kind of athlete in the open field that Iamaleava could prove to be. It's an entirely new element we could see utilized more by the Vols next season.

As for the passing game, it's hard to come to any sweeping conclusions from the Citrus Bowl. Iowa didn't confuse Iamaleava into making mistakes, but it ricked the Tennessee offensive line enough to put Iamaleava in a lot of tricky spots. While he was sacked six times in the game, there were only two that I'd put on his shoulders. Even then, it would've been nice to have some obvious hot reads on a couple of those plays.

For the most part, Iamaleava was asked to read one side of the field and run if it wasn't there. That's not unusual for Iamaleava or the Tennessee offense in general. When plays went as designed, he did an excellent job of quickly assessing the situation and making the throws. Some were more accurate than others, and there was one deep throw off of a double move that should've been a touchdown, but Iamaleava overthrew his receiver by a good five yards. But misses like that were more of the exception than the norm. 

One "wow" throw truly stood out. With Tennessee up 14-0 shortly before halftime and facing a second-and-12 at its 16-yard line, Iamaleava made the best throw of his young career. As you watch the play below, you'll see a receiver come across the middle and appear open, but Iamaleava doesn't throw to him. It would have been a first down if he did, but based on Iamaleava's eyes and how most plays in the game had gone to that point, it wasn't the first read. 

Instead, his first read is to the right, where both receivers are covered. But Iamaleava doesn't panic. He comes back across the field but realizes it's too late and begins to roll out. As he does, he keeps his eyes downfield to see if anything develops and then makes an incredible outside shoulder throw down the field. The receiver makes a great play on the ball, which leads to a chunk play. 

That athleticism is what that stood out the most. It was only one game and 19 pass attempts, but Iamaleava looks more comfortable throwing on the move this early in his career than he does in the pocket. He can get happy feet in the pocket and hops around too much, but that could've been a byproduct of being sped up by a below-average performance from his offensive line. It's not unrealistic to believe these things will improve as he gets more reps and becomes more comfortable in the offense.

That will likely take time, so I wouldn't be shocked if we see Tennessee lean more into that athleticism early in 2024. If nothing else, it would provide more chances for us to see Iamaleava stonewall defensive linemen with a stiff arm, like he did to Iowa's Joe Evans here.


Consider me an Iamaleava fan. Tennessee's offense took a step back last season with Milton. After scoring 43.4 points per game in conference play during the 2022 season, the Vols averaged only 24.4 points per SEC game in 2023. Only Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State were worse. I'm confident the Vols will get much closer to the 40 points per game threshold with Iamaleava at the helm next season than 24.

I don't know how much Iamaleava is getting in NIL, but my read is he's worth it.