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‘Glad that’s past us’: Nico Iamaleava moves beyond NCAA investigation into Tennessee football

Tennessee has Nico Iamaleava’s back, whether it’s guarding his blindside from pass rushers or defending his eligibility against an NCAA inquiry.

The overarching idea of this offseason has been to protect the highly valued quarterback at all costs.

And in order to do that, UT deployed every tool at its disposal, including an assertive NIL collective, Tennessee’s attorney general, and UT Chancellor Donde Plowman.

Everybody was ready to fight if there was a threat to Iamaleava in particular or UT football in general.

Iamaleava expressed his gratitude to UT for standing by him over the offseason against the NCAA on Monday.

“Knowing that all of the student-athletes and the guys in the background are behind us made us feel great,” Iamaleava remarked. “I believe that Coach Josh Heupel and all of the staff have done an excellent job of keeping us concentrated on our primary objective, which is to participate in student athletics at this university.”

If there was a threat to Iamaleava specifically and UT football generally, all hands were on deck to fight.

On Monday, Iamaleava said he’s grateful that UT had his back against the NCAA this offseason.

“It felt great to know all the guys behind the scenes are behind us, all the student-athletes,” Iamaleava said. “I thought Coach (Josh Heupel) and everybody, the whole staff, has done a great job keeping us focused on what the main goal is, which is to be a student-athlete here at the university.”

UT squashed an NCAA investigation that could’ve affected Iamaleava’s eligibility, and it landed premier transfers intended to maximize his talents on the field.

On Monday, both Iamaleava and LSU transfer Lance Heard—the much sought-after offensive lineman that UT acquired to shield Iamaleava—made their first public appearances since spring camp.
“I’m relieved we are over that.”

Iamaleava responded to inquiries on his appreciation for UT’s support of him and his teammates during the NCAA investigation. Had the institution not taken that action, the questioning would have taken a very different turn.

It would’ve been about the potential of a postseason ban for UT football and players ruled ineligible. Both were referenced during a federal hearing in February as possible penalties sought by the NCAA against UT.

Instead, the fight against the NCAA is old news because UT fought ferociously to fend off an investigation into allegations that the university broke NIL rules.

“(We can) focus on ball,” Iamaleava said. “And I’m glad that’s past us.”

On March 1, the NCAA paused all investigations related to NIL benefits for athletes, deadening its attack on UT and Iamaleava.

That decision came after UT deployed Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti to sue to the NCAA in federal court and win a preliminary injunction halting all NIL rules.

And it came after Plowman blasted the investigation via a scathing letter to the NCAA President Charlie Baker and athletics director Danny White piled on with a fiery statement aimed at the association.

During the investigation, Iamaleava showed his support of the UT chancellor by sharing an Instagram post that said, “Donde Plowman vs NCAA is the beef I didn’t know I needed in my life.”

Nico Iamaleava looks to be spared from an NCAA investigation

Although he wasn’t the only person the NCAA was looking at, Iamaleava was the most well-known and important to the Vols.

Media sources and an attorney for Spyre Sports, the NIL group that compensates the quarterback for his branding, suggested that Iamaleava was involved.

According to the New York Times, while UT was recruiting Iamaleava—who was reportedly the nation’s best prospect—Spyre helped arrange for Iamaleava to travel to Knoxville on a private aircraft.

According to the previous understanding of NCAA regulations, Spyre or the individual who provided the plane would have been in breach if the NCAA declared them to be boosters.

However, in his preliminary injunction judgment, federal judge Clifton Corker did not distinguish between NIL collectives and the boosters operating on their behalf.

Thus, it seems that UT football and Iamaleava are secure from NCAA threats.
How Tennessee persuaded players to enhance Iamaleava’s influence

However, assistance for Iamaleava has gone beyond the courtroom and into the transfer portal.

Heard, a former five-star recruit from Iamaleava’s 2023 class, was signed by UT in January.

Heard remarked, “I knew Nico was a great player.” “When we were coming out, he was a really top recruit. And I was certain that I wanted to share in his achievement.

In spring practice, Heard was immediately inserted as the starting left tackle, where he’ll protect Iamaleava’s blind side from the SEC’s best pass rushers.

Offensive line coach Glen Elarbee said “protecting the passer” is where Heard will upgrade the offense the most.

Spyre doesn’t release how much it pays athletes for their NIL. But talented left tackles don’t come cheap in this transfer market, so it’s reasonable to believe Heard was paid well to come to UT and block for Iamaleava.

“It was about the opportunities that I wanted. I felt that Tennessee had everything that I needed,” Heard said when asked why he chose UT.

UT also got tight end Holden Staes, a Notre Dame transfer, and wide receiver Chris Brazzell, a Tulane transfer, in the transfer portal.

Regardless of the quarterback, the Vols required men at those positions, though. However, the knowledge that Iamaleava would attack them increased their worth.

John Campbell, a right lineman who transferred from Miami to return for the 2024 campaign, declined to choose in the NFL Draft. He said that Iamaleava played a role in his choice.

Nico is having a blast. I love that guy,” Campbell said. “.. I adore Nico. He is an excellent leader.

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