NASHVILLE — Nico Iamaleava is certain to face some challenging situations during his career with the Tennessee Volunteers.
Saturday afternoon at Nissan Stadium wasn't one of them.
The five-star freshman quarterback out of Long Beach, California, entered Tennessee's opening 49-13 romp versus Virginia with the Vols already up 42-10 with 12:46 remaining. Iamaleava helped finish off the Cavaliers by engineering a seven-play, 40-yard drive that culminated with a 3-yard touchdown run by Dylan Sampson.
"It was the same things that we've seen," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "He's really calm and cool and has a good demeanor. He was able to communicate and handle all the pre-snap stuff the right way. He was able to get his eyes in the right place.
"I thought he showed some athleticism, and I love his feel in the pocket and being able to step up and get out of it and go make a play with his feet. He's athletic enough to be used in the run game."
Tennessee's first snap with Iamaleava at quarterback was a Sampson 6-yard run, with the second an Iamaleava run up the middle for 8 yards and the first down. He would throw incomplete to Kaleb Webb on his first college pass but connected with Webb for 6 yards on the ensuing play.
Iamaleava finished 2-of-3 passing for 11 yards and with the 8-yard run.
"He made an athletic throw," Heupel said. "He didn't complete it, but it was a throw across his body on a slant route. All in all, it was a really solid performance from him."
Vols football vs. Virginia on Sept. 2, 2023
A rough first step
The debut of Jackson Ross from Melbourne, Australia, didn't quite go as planned, as the redshirt freshman punter's first career attempt traveled just 17 yards in the first quarter.
Ross had a 27-yarder in the second quarter but steadied things somewhat to finish with a 35.8-yard average on five punts.
"Can you imagine going over to a foreign country and playing a game for the first time you've ever played, you know?" Heupel said. "Did I anticipate that? No, but do I understand it? Yeah.
"He's going to be a really good player, and what you saw late from him is what we've seen all training camp."
Heupel also said that Josh Turbyville will learn from Saturday as well. The redshirt freshman from Knoxville had two of his eight kickoffs go out of bounds, thus giving the Cavaliers possession at their 35.
Shuffling up front
With senior center Cooper Mays out for Saturday's opener, sixth-year senior Ollie Lane had the snapping assignments and was flanked by right guard Javontez Spraggins and right tackle Jeremiah Crawford, and by left guard Andrej Karic and left tackle John Campbell Jr.
Dayne Davis, Jackson Lampley and Gerald Mincey also saw significant time on the line before the benches emptied in the fourth quarter.
"All of that was planned," Heupel said. "We were going to rotate those guys. We have great trust in those guys, and as the season goes on, we inevitably need to have depth and be able to move people around. We'll get Coop back here hopefully very soon, and at the same time, I've loved what we've done with the moving parts we've had.
"We'll find more out as we watch the tape, but all in all I thought it was a solid performance from all those guys."
Time for him to go
When Sampson scored his third of four touchdowns midway through the third quarter to make it 35-3, several Tennessee players celebrated together, with one notable exception.
Sixth-year senior tackle and Miami graduate transfer John Campbell Jr. pushed his defender through the back of the end zone in a scene reminiscent of "The Blind Side."
"To be honest, I didn't see that until I got in the locker room," quarterback Joe Milton III said. "I think he Michael Oher-ed him, at least that's what everybody was saying in the locker room. Just to have someone like John on our team is great.
"You obviously see what he can do and brings to the team."
Odds and ends
Tennessee improved to 95-26-6 in season openers, while Heupel improved to 6-0 in his career by the average score of 52-13. ... Milton has now thrown 174 passes at Tennessee without an interception, which ranks second in school history behind Hendon Hooker, who had 261 consecutive attempts between interceptions during the 2021-22 seasons. ... Mays and fifth-year senior nose tackle Elijah Simmons were the only Vols ruled unavailable before kickoff. ... Sophomore receiver Squirrel White, senior defensive tackle Omari Thomas and senior defensive end Tyler Baron briefly left the game with minor injuries, with Thomas and Baron returning to action. ... The Vols played 16 true or redshirt freshmen Saturday and also played nine transfers.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].