It’s football time in Tennessee because of Nico Iamaleava

Marvin Westwestwords

It has been said that Tennessee football is a year-round sport, that it never goes away, only fluctuates in interest and intensity.

Here and now are not like the third Saturday in October but we have a surprising high for the middle of January. Nico is the obvious reason.

A regular reader asked what thousands may be wondering – will the Volunteer offensive line be good enough to keep the young quarterback upright and reduce the risk of injury? The best possible answer on this particular day is maybe.

Six sacks in the Citrus Bowl were cause for concern. Some did not belong to linemen. One was charged to running back Dylan Sampson. Twice Nico held the ball too long.

There was an additional problem: Iamaleava was too often pressured. There weren’t many clean pockets and the ones that were didn’t stay clean very long.

Tennessee is fishing in the transfer portal for a tackle or two and maybe a guard to reinforce returning Vol veterans. Thank goodness for Cooper Mays, John Campbell, Andrej Karic and maybe Javontez Spraggins. No applause for Gerald Mincey. He followed the money to Kentucky.

There is a glaring hole and a serious need for depth.

The reader did not accept that evaluation as the gospel. He is not convinced last year’s line was good enough or would be good enough if it was returning intact.

He believes the impressive rushing numbers were more the result of Jaylen Wright’s long-distance ability than brisk blocking. He thinks Joe Milton might have performed better with better pass protection.

Hmmm, he could be right.

There is one solution in sight. Former LSU offensive tackle Lance Heard, 6-6 and 340, is seriously considering the Volunteers. If he finds his way from Baton Rouge to downtown Knoxville – if-if-if – he could become the top-ranked lineman on the team.

The five-star Heard was LSU’s top signee in the class of 2023 but was trapped behind two returning tackles. He is transferring to become a starter. Tennessee has a job opening. He wants to finish growing up and play in the NFL. Tennessee has a how-to-do-it example. His name is Darnell Wright, former Vol, young millionaire with the Chicago Bears.

Heard would be a quick fix but it appears there is an underlying problem. There is no pipeline with a steady flow of replacements. No high school offensive lineman from three recruiting roundups of the Josh Heupel era has become a first-team Volunteer.

Take your pick: Tennessee did not sign the best prep prospects or Tennessee has been very slow developing what it has. Current reserves with a chance to break through are Shamurad Umarov, Vysen Lang, Masai Reddick and Ayden Bussell.

The newest group of recruits – Bennett Warren, Max Anderson, William Satterwhite, Jesse Perry and Gage Ginther – may be the best yet. This class looks like self-defense on the part of line coach Glen Elarbee.

Alas, an immediate leap from high school to SEC trench warfare is a little much even for four-stars.

Several possibilities have come and gone. Addison Nichols just went through the dreaded transfer-out portal to Arkansas. I think that says he gave up here.

He was among the top recruits in Tennessee’s 2022 class, 6-5 and 315, all-everything. Nichols, first sought by the Jeremy Pruitt group, was a prize for Heupel. Everybody wanted him. He had visited Florida, Georgia, Ohio State and Southern Cal. He chose Tennessee.

I remember some of the stuff I wrote – real big deal, major recruiting victory at a major position of need. So many sources said Nichols was special.

Addison was a very interesting young man – 3.77 academic average at Greater Atlanta Christian School, more than 30 scholarship offers, four-star rating, good golfer, self-taught musician (piano, guitar, ukulele), Eagle scout, second-degree black belt in taekwondo and part-time grocery store employee who earned two promotions.

His mother is a UT grad. His grandparents live in Knoxville.

There’s more: He was a member of Lighthouse Ministries and assisted families with terminally ill children. He delivered poinsettias to the elderly during Christmas holidays. He volunteered with a home improvement group that helped the needy. He worked with handicapped children at his church’s Bible school. He was supposedly tougher than hell in football.

In two seasons at Tennessee, he did just a little more than nothing. I’m now hearing that the third cousin of somebody’s brother says Addison won in high school on ability, that his work ethic was never good enough.

Elarbee recognized Addison’s intelligence and thought that translated to potential versatility. He moved him from tackle to guard and tried to turn him into a reserve center but when Mays went down, Ollie Lane had to fill the vacancy.

Nichols did appear in all 2023 games with special teams. He played 49 snaps from scrimmage. He started the Vanderbilt game. We now know that was a bid to keep him.

I think I understand why he went away. He heard starting offensive linemen were coming back for their fifth or sixth seasons. Elarbee obviously favors experience over ability or potential. I’m guessing Addison read the situation as a closed door to playing time.

File this away: I’m almost certain his departure was not an NIL issue, an auction. I do not believe there are many better places to play college football than Neyland Stadium – if you can play.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


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