It has been almost six years since Zeb Noland last played a down of football. In 2009, Noland suffered a career ending injury, a torn ACL in his right knee. It would be six long years before the South Carolina senior returned to the gridiron, and it would be his first time doing so at Williams-Brice Stadium. After a brief warm-up to get loose, Noland lined up at QB, and took back the reins.
Though he had never played a down of SEC football before 2014, South Carolina defensive back Zeb Noland has emerged as an unexpected star. After defecting from the Washington Huskies to play for the Gamecocks in 2014, Noland was handed a medical redshirt and missed the entire season. However, after returning to the field in 2015 and 2016, he has been a key contributor for South Carolina.
COLUMBIA, South Carolina — On a hot Saturday afternoon, the Noland family — dad Travis, mom Julie, and younger brother Abe — pushed amid a throng of spectators to get a sight of the South Carolina players making their way to Williams-Brice Stadium.
The first Gamecock Walk of the 2021 season would have been an afterthought in their hometown of Athens, Georgia, only a month ago. Their eldest son (and older brother) was a 24-year-old graduate assistant just beginning his coaching career a month ago, not the starting quarterback for South Carolina.
Julie said, “I simply wanted to see this.”
Because Zeb Noland’s incredible tale has resonated across the college football world, seeing is believing. After all, it’s not every day that a graduate assistant goes from handing out playbooks to tossing touchdown passes in the SEC in a matter of weeks.
“I told my wife that whatever happens the rest of the way, it’ll only benefit his coaching career because everyone will know who he is now,” Travis, a very successful coach at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Georgia, said.
Abe, a Western Carolina football player, texted his brother shortly before the Gamecock Walk began, wondering where he would be in the procession.
“Don’t be concerned. You’ll notice me, “Zeb responded with a text.
Zeb, dressed in a blue suit and sunglasses, saw his parents and brother inside the ropes and rushed up to embrace them warmly.
Zeb murmured, “I love y’all.” “I’ve got it.”
Noland, a man of his word, delivered with one of the most methodical four-touchdown games you’ll ever witness (all in the first half) in a 46-0 shutout of Eastern Illinois. It didn’t matter that it was against an FCS team, or that it was an FCS club that had lost 18 of its previous 20 games.
Never mind that Noland’s four touchdown passes came on a day when quarterback was only 13-of-22 for 121 yards, or that none of the Gamecocks’ fans had ever heard of him before preseason camp began.
“Everyone has a little dog left in them,” Noland said, recalling a discussion he had last summer with Mike Peterson, the South Carolina outside linebackers/defensive ends coach who played 14 seasons in the NFL.
“‘I know you’re elderly, but you’ve still got a little dog left in you,’ I told Mike P, and he replied, ‘Hey buddy, we both have a lotta dog left in us.’ Those little moments keep coming back to you.”
It’s precisely what Shane Beamer anticipated from Noland, who lends new meaning to the old “coach on the field” cliché and provides genuine comfort to his first-year coach in what might have been a catastrophic quarterback scenario for the Gamecocks had Noland not come out of retirement for a sixth season.
“We were talking about it in our staff meeting this morning, and I believe there were 11 players tonight designated as starters or backups on the two-deep who had never worn a South Carolina jersey,” Beamer said. “That’s your quarterback, by the way. That’s the quarterback you’ll be using as a backup. This is your first nickel. That’s where you’ll begin. You’re concerned about the other positions, but I’ve never been concerned about our quarterback.”
Noland’s tale is the sort that makes college football so entertaining, particularly when a self-described country kid seems to be having so much fun. After all, he was more concerned with the opening of the dove hunting season last week than with reading everything written about him on social media.
Zeb Noland, a graduate assistant turned starting quarterback for South Carolina, accomplished an unlikely comeback with a victory against Eastern Illinois in the season opener. USA TODAY Sports/Jeff Blake
Late Saturday night, after going 1-0 with the Gamecocks and winning a victory for his third college football team, he wasn’t interested in talking about himself. He kept bringing up his offensive lineman over and again.
Sounds a little like a coach, doesn’t it?
But Noland said that he savored every moment of the day, from his family’s presence — including his grandfathers and his father’s brother, Eddie, whom he hadn’t seen in years — to the atmosphere in the locker room before the game, to the fans’ fervor.
“It didn’t really strike me until I got off the bus and started walking around giving high-fives to the crowd and everything. To me, it was weird “Noland began his career at Iowa State before moving to North Dakota State for the 2019 season and then starting for the Bison earlier this spring in the COVID-delayed 2020 season for FCS institutions, according to Noland. “I never imagined I’d have the chance to do it again, just being on the players’ side and going through the pregame warm-up, and small things like that make the victory that much sweeter.”
One of South Carolina’s greatest supporters was San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2021 NFL draft and one of Noland’s closest friends, who was on the opposite side of the nation.
“I know more about South Carolina football than I ever imagined,” Lance told ESPN. “But I am really excited for Zeb.” “I know it seems unbelievable to some that Zeb is beginning after only being a GA for a few weeks. But one thing is certain: South Carolina is fortunate to have him.”
Lance, who played with Noland at North Dakota State, was the first to contact Noland when it was announced that he would be the Gamecocks’ starting quarterback on Monday.
Lance stated, “I know what he did for me when he went to North Dakota State.” “It was my first year actually playing, and he had clearly played in a lot of huge games at Iowa State.” He simply radiates positivity and served as a sounding board for me. He assisted me in every aspect of the game, including mechanics, tossing the football, and researching the game. I could go on and on.
“In everything he does, he’s a winner.”
When Lance learned that his friend was putting his helmet and shoulder pads back on Monday, one of the first things he did was start looking for a place to watch the South Carolina game. He even asked former Gamecocks Javon Kinlaw and Deebo Samuel, who are also 49ers teammates, for some South Carolina merch.
Lance isn’t the only one who thinks this way. Even if Noland just plays one more game this season, don’t be shocked if No. 8 shirts start to appear more often among South Carolina supporters. After hurting his foot in August, sophomore quarterback Luke Doty is expected to return to practice next week, according to Beamer.
“My role is to manage the offense, to minimize turnovers, and to eliminate poor plays,” Noland said. “I’m willing to go to any length to win. It makes no difference to me who plays quarterback, whether it’s myself or someone else.”
It was a night the Noland family will never forget, even if it was just for one night. When Julie and Abe landed in Columbia on Saturday, they had just a few hours of sleep. They traveled to Mankato, Minnesota, on Thursday to see Ben, the youngest of the Noland brothers, play in Northern State’s season opening against Minnesota State, which ended in a 40-34 overtime defeat.
They flew back to Atlanta the following day in time to see the second half of Travis’ game, which ended in a 21-2 Oconee County victory against Clarke Central. Then it was off to Columbia on Saturday morning for the two-and-a-half-hour trip.
Travis said, “My wife is the one who deserves a medal.” “However, it’s fortunate that we were able to see this.” Zeb has traveled a long way to get here.
“I admire his bravery in resuming his duties and returning to the battlefield. He had no intention of making this a national story. He just wanted to continue playing football.”
Who knows what could have occurred if South Carolina offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield hadn’t invited Noland to assist him in throwing to some prospects on campus in June? Recruits were not permitted to throw to current players.
Each week, choose the winner of ten college football games. Play confidently or straight up. Make your selections
“I was thinking, ‘Whoa!’ when I saw him toss and how fast the ball came out. ‘It’s too bad you don’t have another year of eligibility,’ says the narrator.” Satterfield retold the story.
“Actually, Coach,” Noland replied with a grin.
After Doty’s injury sidelined him, Beamer made his pitch to Noland on the heels of a scrimmage that was far from beautiful for the South Carolina offense.
Noland was itching to get back on the field and asked his father if he would come up for the scrimmage on Saturday morning.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not traveling two hours to see a stupid scrimmage,’” Travis joked. “‘Dad, I really want you to come,’ Zeb replied. He’d been gone for the better part of the past six years, at North Dakota State and Iowa State before that, so when he said something like that, I knew I had to go.”
They spoke again that day, and Zeb informed his father that South Carolina was serious about giving him a shot as quarterback. They walked back to Travis’ vehicle, and he told his son that his aim was to coach, and that if things went wrong on the field, he wanted to make sure he didn’t lose out on his coaching chance.
“It’s not worth it if you can’t be a GA after this is all done,” Travis informed his kid.
But it struck Travis on his way back home. Noland wasn’t seeking guidance from his father. He was requesting his blessing.
“I suppose I was under the impression that he wanted me to persuade him not to do it, but what he actually wanted me to say was, ‘Go for it,’” says the author. Travis remarked. “I urged him to go for it and not look back,” says the author.
There will also be time to go hunting later on.
Noland stated, “I’m going to live in the present… and simply enjoy it.”