Joe opts out, Nico to start

Marvin Westwestwords

Joe is a no-go. That means there is suddenly a new feeling of excitement about the Citrus Bowl.

The wait is almost over for those who just couldn’t wait for the beginning of the Nico era. Tennessee’s starting quarterback against Iowa will be Nico Iamaleava (pronounced ee-ah-MAH-LAY-ah-va).

There is only a small concern. The Hawkeyes are among the best defensive teams in the country.

The show starts New Year’s Day at 1, in Orlando or on ABC TV. Joe Milton has opted out.

Joe had implied, hinted and insinuated that he would play in the Citrus. He played high school football in Orlando. Indeed, there was a game to go, unfinished business, loyalty to teammates and Josh Heupel, etc.

Somebody got in his ear. Why risk injury? He and all the pro scouts will be together in Mobile for the Senior Bowl. That will be the time to lay it all on the line. Just refund the final NIL payment and wish Nico well.

A year ago, Joe used his opportunity in the Orange Bowl as the launch to 2023. He had a good game. He was MVP. The postgame photo of him tossing oranges to fans went viral – well, so they say.

This past season did not. The record was 8-4. Two losses were predictable. What happened at Florida smelled bad. Missouri inflicted a genuine upset. Joe did not play well against Texas A&M. The sack and fumble in the fourth quarter against Alabama was the end of that adventure.

All was not lost. Milton completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 2,813 yards and 20 touchdowns. He lost five interceptions. He ran for 299 yards and seven more scores.

He ranked eighth in SEC passer ratings. He was seventh in passing yardage.

Other numbers say most of the air went out of Tennessee’s air attack. It went from fifth nationally in 2022 (Hendon Hooker and Jalin Hyatt) to 46th this season. No, no, that wasn’t all Joe’s fault. Receivers dropped more than their fair share.

Joe Milton’s fame, what there is of it, is based on the powerful right arm. He can throw a football a long ways, maybe the length of a football field. We now know that is unimportant unless blocks last forever and good guys run that far and catch the ball.

I thought Heupel (and maybe offensive coordinator-QB coach Joey Halzle) put handcuffs on Milton at times in search of accuracy. Instead of bombs-away, he did dinks and dunks. He rarely let it fly.

He did add some distance in the Vanderbilt game. He threw for 383 yards and four touchdowns. He ran for two more. Pity the Commodores.

That was Milton’s only game above 300 passing for Tennessee. Six-TD accountability on one Saturday is a rare accomplishment.

After that final game at Neyland Stadium, I thought I heard that Joe was looking forward to one more game to play. OK, my hearing is suspect. I’m glad Milton went out on a high. He was a class act when Hooker got his job. He stayed. They were or became close friends who honestly helped each other.

Now is the time to say Nico can play. He looked very good as an athlete and field general in the televised Polynesian Bowl last December. He was MVP. He was a great high school player, No. 2 in America, some said.

Nico is unlikely to be dazzled or awed by a bigger bowl game. He has been in the spotlight for years, just waiting for the really big time.

Back in August, Heupel was asked what if he had to take charge.

“I think he’s ready to play at a really high level. All young quarterbacks, it’s different when you get out there and bullets are flying and you don’t have the right jersey on. But I feel really good about where he’s at.

“Command of our offense, being a really sound decision-maker, fundamentally being able to get himself in a good position to be consistently accurate with the ball. I like what he’s done.”

Nico has had very few opportunities as a Volunteer. He should have had more. Teammates have said he made important practice progress. He learned in quarterback meetings.

The coach and others were impressed with his resiliency and maturity and the fact that he is a quick learner.

Nico is quick in other ways, a natural scrambler, 6-6 and 205, nimble afoot, incredible arm, quick release, charisma, leadership ability. Let us hope the Hawkeyes can’t catch him.

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


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