Tennessee football fans wanted to see freshmen, and not just Nico Iamaleava, vs Vanderbilt

Tennessee football fans loved blowing out Vanderbilt, but they wanted to see young players in the game earlier.

And that’s not just freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava. Some freshmen barely got in the game while seniors monopolized the snaps on senior day.

It’s less of a criticism and more of an unfulfilled request. Fans wanted a sneak peek at the 2024 team in the Vols' 48-24 win in the regular-season finale at Neyland Stadium.

About 100 questions were submitted by UT fans via our free Vols text message group. As the Vols (8-4, 4-4 SEC) await their bowl bid, let’s dive into the hot topics in this week’s mailbag.

Why didn’t young players play more against Vanderbilt?

Some coaches like to give the bulk of the snaps to seniors on senior day. Some coaches prefer to start seniors and then substitute as the score dictates, especially in a blowout.

At some positions, young players played early and often. Backup offensive linemen played a lot, although injuries were a factor. But that approach wasn’t consistent at every position.

It was most noticeable at quarterback and the defensive secondary.

Iamaleava played only 21 snaps. He was 9-of-12 passing for 66 yards. Starting quarterback Joe Milton played 59 snaps, and he didn’t leave until scoring his career-high sixth touchdown (four passing, two rushing) at the end of the third quarter.

Senior safety Jaylen McCollough played 68 snaps in his final home game. But freshman safety John Slaughter played only one snap on defense.

Freshman cornerbacks Jordan Matthews and Cristian Conyer only played on special teams even though snaps were available on defense when the game got out of hand.

Should Nico Iamaleava have played earlier against Vanderbilt?

That depends on what UT was trying to accomplish.

If coach Josh Heupel’s goal was for Milton to put up the biggest numbers of his career, then he accomplished that. Milton passed for a career-high 383 yards and accounted for six TDs in his final home game.

If Heupel’s goal was for Milton to lead UT to a big lead and then give maximum snaps to Iamaleava to prepare him to start in 2024, he would’ve put the freshman in earlier.

The Vols led 31-10 at halftime. But Iamaleava didn’t enter the game until the fourth quarter after they had stretched the lead to 45-10.

If practice properly prepares Iamaleava to start, this isn’t an issue. But if he’s not ready, this was a missed opportunity to play an additional 20 snaps of game experience.

Did UT stick with veteran defensive backs too long this season?

That’s a reasonable question.

A year ago, UT coaches praised their freshman defensive backs because of their athleticism and potential to play immediately. But they barely cracked the rotation. Were coaches mistaken or did they rely too much on their older players?

According to Pro Football Focus, there were 4,288 snaps logged by defensive backs this season.

But freshman defensive backs played only 147 snaps. Cornerback Rickey Gibson played 136 snaps. Slaughter played four at safety. Conyers and Matthews played four and three snaps, respectively, at cornerback.

Seniors played 3,506 snaps in the defensive secondary.

That leaves UT with supposedly talented young defensive backs who have little game experience heading into next season. And there were ample opportunities for them to play since UT had eight games decided by a margin of at least 17 points.

Could Iamaleava enter the portal because he hasn’t played enough?

Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava (8) pulls back for the throw during an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, November 25, 2023 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava (8) pulls back for the throw during an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, November 25, 2023 in Knoxville, Tenn.

I don’t see that happening. There’s no indication that he’s upset about his lack of playing time.

Also, Iamaleava is locked into a lucrative NIL deal, and he’s expected to start as a redshirt freshman in 2024.

It doesn’t make sense that Iamaleava would leave just as the starting job was available for him to take.

When will we find out which seniors are returning in 2024?

That varies for each player. There’s no specific deadline.

Some players could announce it on social media in the next couple of weeks as the fall semester ends. Some players will tell coaches privately but not announce it publicly for a while.

SENIORS RETURNING IN 2024? Who participated in Tennessee senior day, and what it means for 2024

The transfer portal opens Dec. 4. Coaches will expect most seniors to tell them whether they’re returning by then. More leeway will be given to NFL prospects because those evaluations take longer.

And some players could be encouraged to move on because their roster spot is more valuable than what they contribute on the field.

What bowl do you think the Vols will go to?

It’ll be the Gator Bowl (Dec. 29 in Jacksonville, Florida) unless some unexpected things happen.

Here’s how that plays out. Georgia wins the SEC title game and goes to the College Football Playoff. Alabama loses the SEC title game and goes to a New Year’s Six Bowl, either the Cotton or Peach. Missouri goes to the other New Year’s Six Bowl.

Then Ole Miss goes to the Citrus Bowl and LSU to the ReliaQuest Bowl (formerly the Outback Bowl).

That leaves UT as the top remaining SEC team, and the Gator Bowl is next in line in terms of preferred bowls. Most projections have the Vols playing North Carolina or NC State.

If Georgia and Alabama both made the CFP, it could have a domino effect to put UT in the ReliaQuest Bowl, but not necessarily.

Will there be any offensive linemen left to play the bowl?

The offensive line is thin.

Starting guard Javontez Spraggins is out with a season-ending injury suffered in the Georgia game. Starting tackle John Campbell missed the past two games with an injury. Starting center Cooper Mays left the Vanderbilt game after limping through the first half, but it didn’t look serious.

And backup guard Andrej Karic is still wearing a walking boot on his injured foot.

If multiple starters opt out of the bowl game and additional linemen enter the transfer portal, that could be a problem. However, the bowl game could be a preview of next season’s offensive line.

What’s your prediction for UT’s record next season?

I’ve gotten this question a lot. But it’s so hard to answer because we don’t know what the roster will look like in 2024.

Heck, we don’t have a clear picture of the roster for the bowl game because players can opt out or enter the portal before then.

Who’s to blame for the scuffle in the Vanderbilt game?

Players leave the benches during a football game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
Players leave the benches during a football game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

I lay blame on the officials.

UT defensive end Tyler Baron should’ve been flagged for a personal foul when he hit Vanderbilt quarterback A.J. Swann, even if Baron didn’t hear the whistle on the false start penalty.

Defensive end James Pearce also could’ve been flagged for hitting Swann after the play was blown dead on the delay of game penalty. However, that flag came late, and it’s unclear if the whistle was blown in time.

Either way, officials could’ve taken control of the situation before a scuffle broke out. Also, it was surprising that no player was ejected from the game after the skirmish.

Why didn’t Dylan Sampson play more and earlier?

Running back Dylan Sampson played more than you think. UT attempted 47 passes and only 32 rushes, so there weren’t many carries to go around.

UT running backs had 25 carries, and 10 went to Sampson. And Sampson played more snaps (37) than Jaylen Wright (31) and Jabari Small (14).

But Sampson didn’t get a carry until the second half because UT wanted Wright to reach 1,000 yards rushing. He did that early in the third quarter, and Heupel said after the game that it was important to the offensive line.

Wright was the first UT player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Jalen Hurd in 2015.

Why did UT finally pass to the tight ends in the final game?

This was actually UT’s most productive season for tight ends during Heupel’s tenure.

In 2021, tight ends had 37 receptions for 406 yards and four TDs. In 2022, tight ends had 36 receptions for 417 yards and three TDs.

This season, tight ends have 42 receptions for 511 yards and eight TDs with a bowl game ahead. McCallan Castles and Jacob Warren had four TD catches each.

Tennessee tight end McCallan Castles (34) runs into the end zone as Vanderbilt safety De’Rickey Wright defends him during a football game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
Tennessee tight end McCallan Castles (34) runs into the end zone as Vanderbilt safety De’Rickey Wright defends him during a football game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Almost every passing stat is lower this season, so it seems like the tight ends have followed that trend. But they’ve done more not less.

Why did Vols kick a field goal with 28 seconds left?

I don’t understand why Heupel chooses to kick field goals late in blowouts, as either the winning or losing team. It’s not how most coaches handle the end of games.

As the winning team, maybe it’s an act of mercy. Some would see scoring a late TD as running up the score. The other option would’ve been to take a knee on fourth-and-8.

But Heupel likes scoring points. After three seasons at UT, that’s evident.

SPARKS Don't discount Tennessee progress under Josh Heupel. Now comes the hard part.

It seems like opposing coaches don’t like Josh Heupel. Anything to that?

I wouldn’t read too much into isolated incidents.

Missouri’s Eliah Drinkwitz rubbed it in at the handshake after his Tigers beat UT. That’s because the Vols scored a late TD against Missouri last season. And UConn coach Jim Mora Jr. said something to Heupel when he blew past him at the handshake.

I find that the most successful coaches who haven’t won a championship get under the skin of opposing coaches the easiest. Think about it.

Coaches don't like getting beat by Kirby Smart or Nick Saban, but they respect them because they’re the best in the sport. Coaches like Heupel sometimes get dominant wins, but they don’t have a national title to demand automatic respect.

Heupel wins a lot, but he’s not an elite coach yet. So some opposing coaches don’t handle it well when they lose to him. It’s just a theory.

Adam Sparks is the Tennessee football beat reporter. Email adam.sparks@knoxnews.com. X, formerly known as Twitter@AdamSparks. Support strong local journalism by subscribing atknoxnews.com/subscribe.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: We answer Tennessee football fans questions about freshmen, bowl game

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