Nico, Nico, Nico

Marvin Westwestwords

Big basketball game tonight, big guy in the spotlight, man mountain Zachry Cheyne Edey. Millions will be watching, if they have TBS.

That part is said out loud.

Whispers from Tennessee spring football practice sound like Nicholaus Iamaleava is the really big guy, up 26 pounds to 216, stronger, even quicker and smarter. He is doing just fine, thank you. This is his team. It will probably go as far as he takes it.

There is encouraging support. Josh Heupel and Joey Halzle are genuine quarterback coaches. They were quarterbacks. One was famous.

The offensive line is not great but it is experienced. New receivers have added spice. The defensive front includes some “crusty dudes,” whatever that means. The secondary is new but it almost has to be better.

The roster appears improved.

Heupel says championships are the ultimate objective for his program. Dr. Danny White’s attitude is obviously contagious. Be reminded that winning big is different from instant oatmeal. At Tennessee, as at most places, it is step by step.

Even Nico is on the incremental step plan.

For openers, he can do more things with a football than Joe Milton did. Nico can throw on the run. Nico can run and not throw.

From the beginning, Iamaleava has been a poster person for potential. He’s athletic. Arm talent isn’t an issue. He’s got poise and instincts.

Nico’s high school coach, Kevin Pearson, adds insight you may not have heard.

“He was one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached, at a position where you don’t get a lot of tough kids. He’s just different. His mentality is different. He’ll take on the hitters and hit back.”

(Pearson never met Dewey Warren).

Iamaleava has been a Volunteer for a while, now. He is less of a question and more of an answer. OK, Heupel wants you to understand that Nico still has quite a bit to learn.

Return with me to Orlando, to the Citrus Bowl. Nico was sacked six times. As I recall, two untimely knockdowns were blamed on backs missing blocks. Two were because Nico took too long reading receiver routes and the offensive line broke down. Two were because Nico firmly believed he could escape any collapsing pocket.

And he could back in California. But this is the big league. That even includes Iowa.

One of Nico’s off-season improvement projects was pace and timing. He was going to reset the clock in his head. Another was a small degree of logical refinement, risk management. He is, indeed, a brave young man but far more valuable upright than injured.

Of course, he will run with the football – to make something of nothing, to salvage broken plays, when a run is the winning edge. There probably won’t be more than a hundred called runs, 99 more than Peyton Manning’s bootleg sweep.

Tempting part of the equation: Nico has an initial burst, running instincts and natural elusiveness.

Nico’s spring school subjects included bold communications, continuing to develop as a leader. Heupel says he’s hyper focused on growing to become the best he can be.

Communications includes interaction with receivers, running backs, offensive line and whoever is actually calling plays.

“The growth, his voice within our entire program, he’s got to continue to grow in that role.”

So said the boss.

He also said “I believe he’s going to be a great dynamic player.”

Defensive lineman Tyre West worded it differently.

“I’ve known for a long time. I knew getting Nico that we got a money-maker, for real. Nico’s that guy.”

Tailback Dylan Sampson said: “He’s going to keep growing.”

Wideout Dont’e Thornton Jr. said: “A big point of growth I’ve seen is him being a more vocal leader.”

Receiver coach Kelsey Pope said he has seen the young QB maturing and taking ownership of the entire offense.

“He provides accountability. He’s kind of taken the bull by the horns.”

Halzle says Nico is mature beyond his years and that he never acted like he knew it all, that he came in wanting to learn.

“Natural aura about him where people gravitate to him, they listen to what he says. It’s a little bit outside his comfort zone … but when he talks, others stop talking and listen.”

So, what does Nico say?

“I know what I came here to do, and it’s my job to get that done.”

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


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