LAS VEGAS – Room 311 at the Tuscany Suites was where Nico Iamaleava was getting his braids done on Friday, working on that fresh look for a big weekend here at the OT7 event, one of the highest-profile 7-on-7 tournaments all offseason.
There is no doubt the five-star quarterback who’s now at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly is polishing a certain appearance. The braids stand out. Playing in pajama pants during 7-on-7 games. The diamond earrings and the bling and the charisma all come in the Iamaleava package.
But there’s so much more to Iamaleava, his personality and his game. He’s happy recruiting is over and he can turn to recruiter. For someone who loves the spotlight, the incessant calls and texts from coaches weren’t his thing. He always hangs around his younger brother, Madden, who also wears the pajama pants at games. His dad, Nicholaus, coaches Team Toa.
Lost in a reported $8 million NIL deal is that Iamaleava is still just 17-years-old, wants to be a kid and have fun and during the doldrums of an impossibly long offseason where tournament stacks upon camp stacks upon tournament and so on, Iamaleava likes to keep it light.
No matter where he goes, though, the pajamas are always a topic.
“When I first brought the PJs out it was the Battle Miami tournament, it was because I didn’t have any extra clothes,” said Iamaleava, who wore Sesame Street ones at OT7 on Friday night. “The only thing I could play with was the PJs. I was just like, man, I’ll just rock the PJs.
“It became a little trend and I saw little kids doing it and I just kept it going and ever since then it just blew up. I just kept it since then and everybody looks at it different ways but I’m just having fun out there. All the little kids have fun with it, too, so it’s fun.
“They ask me where I get the PJs from and I tell them, ‘Go on Amazon, bro. Go look up on there. They have them all on there.’”
Amazon is the everything store and in many ways Iamaleava is the everything quarterback.
He’s 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, more the build of an Olympic volleyball player than SEC quarterback (Iamaleava is also a star on the volleyball court) but his frame could easily add weight. That should come with time.
The arm talent is extraordinary as the ball pops. His accuracy has gotten better. He plays with that flair of confidence where he knows he’s good and can’t wait to show it. And his teammates seem to absolutely love him.
His opponents, meanwhile, constantly have the look of, ‘How did he do that?’
Always with a smile on his face, maybe a sly smile like he knows all the secrets, Iamaleava looks like he’s enjoying himself every time he hits the field no matter how grueling yet another event can be.
“It’s been a great ride,” his father, Nicholaus Iamaleava, said. “Trying to get his name out and making sure he’s being seen is a process but now that we’re here I’m trying to stay out of the way and allow his skill set to speak for itself.”
Iamaleava went all over the country to find the right college program. He committed to Tennessee in March as the Volunteers secured one of their biggest pledges in Rivals history dating back to 2002.
Over the last 10 seasons, Tennessee has had as many winning seasons as losing ones. The Vols haven’t won double-digit games since 2007, the second-to-last year of coach Phillip Fulmer‘s tenure, which seems like eons ago.
Those are some reasons why critics have taken to social media – always the cornerstone of sensible debate – to claim Iamaleava is only going to Knoxville because of his NIL money.
Iamaleava’s dad isn’t offended by that talk. He just thinks it’s drastically misguided.
“No one knows us so that’s why I don’t take offense to anything,” Nicholaus Iamaleava said. “Everybody is opinionated. Sometimes it irritates me when you have grown men talking. My kid is 17 and as a dad my natural reaction is to protect him. But we don’t pay attention to none of that stuff.
“If you really do your homework, (Josh Heupel) is the only head coach who actually played quarterback that was part of Nico’s recruitment. …. And then you break down their coaching staff, you have (Alex) Golesh, a great offensive mind and you have Joey Halzle so he’s a California kid, really big and instrumental in Nico’s recruitment and played quarterback as well.
“A lot of dudes recruiting him never played quarterback at a high level. They don’t know the experiences he’s going through. I don’t know what he’s going through, what he’s going to go through emotionally, mentally, so I needed to surround him with men, grown men, great coaches that are going to surround my son and help with his development not only on the field but off the field to grow as a person. Those three men along with their assistants, they’re going to be surrounding my son that I’ve met and spent a lot of time with over the last seven, eight months.”
For the five-star quarterback, his focus has turned to loading up with talent around him – Carnell Tate. Tausili Akana. Rico Walker. Francis Mauigoa. Lucas Simmons. Wilkin Formby. Chandavian Bradley. John Slaughter III.
“There are a couple guys I’m going after,” Iamaleava said. “I still have a whole list I’m looking at.”
There was so much for Iamaleava to like about Tennessee. What he said stood out most were the people.
“The people in Knoxville are just great people all-around,” Iamaleava said. “I don’t think you’d get that anywhere else in the South other than Knoxville. I went all over, been to Bama, been to Georgia, and Knoxville was just different.
“The interactions I had with just the people at the hotel, just ‘How you doing? What are you here for?’ You don’t get that at any other spot. The people of Knoxville are great and I love the city of Knoxville. Nashville is right there so all-around I had the perfect choice.”
But do the Tennessee fans know how to say his name yet (it’s EE-ahm-uh-lee-ahv-ah)? It took some time for the Clemson faithful to be comfortable saying DJ Uiagalelei’s last name but Iamaleava isn’t worried about it.
“Some of them are getting it,” he said. “They’ll get it soon for sure.”
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS WITH TENNESSEE FANS AT VOLQUEST.COM