By Josh Ward
There are several reasons more than 58,000 fans showed up to Tennessee’s Orange and White Game on Saturday.
Tennessee’s program is in great shape.
The weather was great.
Fans love Tennessee football.
But there was no greater reason for fans to attend the game than the chance to see Joe Milton and Nico Iamaleava.
Tennessee’s two quarterbacks are an attraction.
Milton has an arm that can compete with anyone on the planet.
And Iamaleava is Tennessee’s most heralded signee in the era of internet recruiting.
So what have we learned about Tennessee’s two star quarterbacks now that spring has ended? For starters…
Joe Milton is QB1
There was little doubt entering the spring, but the last month confirmed Milton is the guy.
Milton showed his leadership on Saturday, communicating with players through the spring game even when he wasn’t playing.
Milton has developed on the field. But his biggest progress since arriving at Tennessee might be his understanding of the QB job.
“I think some of that starts with off the field and being really sure who he is and what he is about,” coach Josh Heupel said on Saturday.
Milton fits the QB1 role now. Everyone inside the program knows he’s the starter.
Meanwhile, Iamaleava is following Milton’s lead. That’s why…
Nico has time to develop
Tennessee might need Iamaleava this season.
That could be due to performance or injury. (Tennessee hopes for neither issue, of course.)
But for now, Iamaleava can learn from Milton while he handles the starting role.
Milton benefited from watching Hendon Hooker guide Tennessee’s offense the last two seasons. The two players were close off the field.
The latter played an important role in Milton’s development.
Milton is offering the same kind of help to Iamaleava.
“It’s been tremendous, man,” Iamaleava said. “He’s been a real big brother helping me out with the offense and everything.”
Iamaleava could be ready to play by the start of the season.
He’ll benefit from not having to do so.
Still, the excitement about Iamaleava should remain high, because…
Nico has all the tools
Iamaleava showed off his mobility on Saturday.
His throw on the run down the right sideline to freshman tight end Ethan Davis was Iamaleava’s top highlight of the day.
“A really beautiful, accurate throw by Nico,” Heupel said. “He has got the ability to get himself in great body position when he is out in space and he has got people chasing him.”
Several people have mentioned that Iamaleava “looks like he’s built to run Josh Heupel’s system.”
I’m one of those people. And that play to Davis is an example.
It’s one play in a spring game. But that play backs up some of the behind-the-scenes reporting from the spring.
Iamaleava has already flashed the talent that helped him earn a five-star rating in high school.
Iamaleava has a lot to learn as a freshman. But he has a lot to work with along the way.
Milton’s profile is growing
Tennessee fans are excited about Milton.
Outside Knoxville, analysts have started to buy in. Word has traveled out of the Tennessee facilities about Milton’s development.
ESPN analyst Greg McElroy suggested earlier this month that Milton could be a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate.
“A guy that I’m very, very excited about and I’m just not that concerned about replacing Hendon Hooker,” McElroy said on his Always College Football Podcast. “If you can maximize your potential, the sky is the limit for what Joe Milton could potentially become within Tennessee’s offense.”
Oddsmakers have Milton on the Heisman radar as well.
It makes sense. He’s the starting quarterback of an offense that’s expected to put up massive numbers.
And Tennessee is expected to win.
That’s why we can’t forget…
Milton still has plenty to prove
He knows that, too.
“There’s a lot on the plate,” Milton said Saturday when asked about the opportunity he has.
Milton pointed to the trust he has in his teammates and coaches, and that’s real.
But he’ll be judged by the results.
Tennessee went 11-2 last season and Hooker finished fifth in Heisman voting. That’s a lot to follow.
Milton’s Orange Bowl performance should inspire confidence that he’ll have a successful senior season.
He looks like a different quarterback from the one who was replaced during the 2021 season.
Milton has the skills, confidence and understanding of the offense to be successful.
But he also has a backup quarterback with a lot of talent and a fanbase excited to see him play.
Milton will be fine if he continues to progress the way he’s shown. If Tennessee wins, Milton receive the praise.
But if the Vols struggle early in 2023, Nico’s name will start to come up.
We’ve all learned that from the past.