Jan 02, 2024

Freshman Nico Iamaleava Earns Cheez-It Citrus Bowl MVP Honors

By Nick Cohen
Florida Citrus Sports

University of Tennessee freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava was named the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl Most Valuable Player for his four-touchdown performance in his first career start.

The Tennessee Volunteers defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Cheez-It Bowl 35-0.

“I am proud of the guys and how they played. The receivers played a tremendous game, and O-line did good. Receivers did good. I still think there is a lot of room for us to get better,” said Iamaleava. “We have a great team around us, great coaching staff, and I really think sky is the limit for this team. It is up to us to go out there and get it done.”

Iamaleava finished the game with 151 passing yards, a passing touchdown, 27 rushing yards, and three rushing touchdowns.

“He definitely presented a lot of challenges. When you talk about how you have to defend two facets, whether it be in the passing game or in the running game, it is definitely a lot tougher, and he is a very mobile guy, and you were able to see that today,” said Iowa’s senior defensive end Joe Evans.

“We have great confidence in him and in that quarterback room. I believe he is going to be a great, dynamic playmaker,” said Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. “I thought he handled himself composed all day long. Subtle things of breaking the huddle, communication inside of the huddle, controlling the run game, his eyes were in the right place. Great to see a young guy go out and perform in that way in his first career start. There are a lot of things that Nico can continue to grow and will continue to grow in.”

Tennessee senior quarterback Joe Milton III finished the season with 2,813 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions, 299 rushing yards, and seven more rushing touchdowns. He announced his declaration for the NFL draft on Dec. 27, hence Iamaleava starting this game.

Rather than staying home and watching the big game on television, Milton III was on the sidelines with Iamaleava.

“Be another voice to help Nico as he comes off the sidelines,” Heupel said on Milton’s impact. “Being able to help him get ready for the next set and also create positive energy. Besides being the quarterback on the field, throwing the football, making decisions, every other part of his roles that he has had during the year, he can still have on the sideline.”

Before stepping on campus in Knoxville, Iamaleava was stuffing the stat sheets in high school.

In his sophomore year he had 1,004 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, one interception, and one rushing touchdown. In his junior year he stepped up big-time with 2,244 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, a single interception, 158 rushing yards, and three rushing touchdowns. His senior year is when he really started to develop his running game with 1,986 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, five interceptions, 399 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns on his way to being named Polynesian Football Player of the Year.

Due to his Polynesian descent, he decided to play in the Polynesian Bowl instead of an All-American game.

This impressive high school resume earned him 24 D1 offers including nearly every big-name school like Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, FSU, LSU, and Miami, before he eventually decided on Tennessee because of the family-feel and quarterback room.

“I think Hendon and Joe, when I first got here, they welcomed me with open arms, man. Yeah, it feels good to get love from guys like that, guys that set this university at the standard it is right now,” said Iamaleava. “I am really appreciative of those guys.”

Iamaleava said he models and compares his game after NFL quarterbacks like Bryce Young, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson.

In addition to the current NFL quarterbacks, Iamaleava looks up to his future NFL quarterback Joe Milton III after backing him up this season.

“I watch a lot of guys, try and take a piece of their game and add it to mine. Some of the main guys, I watch Joe Milton every day. Just his pocket presence and the way he is able to deliver the ball from anywhere,” said Iamaleava.

Nico has a younger brother in the 2025 class, Madden Iamaleava, who already has 17 D1 offers including Miami, Washington, Liberty, and even Tennessee, in which he would have the opportunity to follow his brother’s potential legacy.


Keep up to date with all of the news from the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl including event information, presale opportunities and more.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.