By Mark Nagi

So far in the relatively short tenure of Josh Heupel as Tennessee’s football coach, the Vols have been good, but not great on the recruiting trail.

Tennessee’s Class of 2022 was ranked 17th in the nation and 8th in the SEC. Those numbers will need to improve if the Vols are going to compete for a conference title.

Their most recent verbal commitment gives UT a chance to do just that.

Nicholaus Iamaleava, a 5-star quarterback from California, has pledged to join the Vols in the Class of 2023. He’s the first 5-star quarterback to commit to Tennessee since James Banks in the Class of 2022.

“Me and my Dad talked about it when we got home from our last visit,” Iamaleava told VolQuest. “We always had a good feel for Tennessee and everything the coaching staff had to offer. The second visit really did it. That was my Mom’s first time seeing Tennessee. That’s what we were waiting for, getting my Mom up there to see what it was like. She loved it… just Knoxville and whole thing—the family vibes, the people there… you don’t get people like that everywhere. We are big on family.”

“He’s a game-changer,” said 247Sports national recruiting analyst Cooper Petagna. “I think what’s so fascinating about him is that he’s so early in the stages of his development, not only physically, but also in regards to being in the structure of a program and knowing where he needs to improve, that I think the sky’s the limit for him. He’s certainly a foundational piece.”

Iamaleava is the 3rd ranked prospect in the nation according to 247Sports. Prior to his pledge, Tennessee had the 18th best group for the Class of 2023. Now, they are ranked 10th nationally. And if Iamaleava has his way, they’ll continue to climb.

A player of Iamleava’s caliber could do for Tennessee what Peyton Manning did in the mid-1990s. So many top prospects wanted to play with Manning that the Vols recruiting fortunes jumped up a few notches in the years that followed. The Vols didn’t win a national championship with Manning, but the players that joined him in Knoxville got UT over the hump in 1998. That of course was one season after Manning had departed for the NFL.

Iamaleava is trying to influence other top prospects that Knoxville should be their future home as well.

“(5-star wide receiver) Carnell Tate and (4-star wide receiver) Kyler Kasper,” Iamaleava told VolQuest. “I built core relationships with those two and Tennessee is in their top schools. We will see what kind of pull I have.”

“Landing Nico makes it cool to be a Vol again,” said 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong.