South Carolina's Zeb Noland completes improbable return to field with season-opening win

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Noland family -- dad Travis, mom Julie and younger brother Abe -- strained among a mass of fans on a steamy Saturday afternoon to get a glimpse of the South Carolina players making their way to Williams-Brice Stadium.

A month ago, the first Gamecock Walk of the 2021 season would have been an afterthought in their Athens, Georgia, home. But a month ago, their oldest son (and big brother) was a 24-year-old graduate assistant just starting his coaching career -- not South Carolina's starting quarterback.

"I just needed to see this," said Julie.

Seeing was indeed believing, because Zeb Noland's improbable story has reverberated throughout the college football world. After all, it's not every day that a graduate assistant, in a span of a few weeks, goes from passing out playbooks to throwing touchdown passes in the SEC.

"I told my wife that no matter what happens the rest of the way, that this is only going to help his coaching career, because everybody's going to know who he is now," said Travis, a highly successful coach at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Georgia.

Abe, who played football at Western Carolina, was texting his brother just as the Gamecock Walk was beginning and asking where he would be in the processional.

"Don't worry. You will see me," Zeb texted back.

In a few minutes, Zeb -- wearing a blue suit and sunglasses -- found his parents and brother behind the ropes and came over and hugged them tightly.

"Love y'all," Zeb whispered. "I got this."

A man of his word, Noland delivered with one of the more methodical four-touchdown performances (all in the first half) you're ever going to see in a 46-0 shutout of Eastern Illinois. Never mind that it was against an FCS team or even an FCS team that has now lost 18 of its past 20 games.

And for that matter, never mind that Noland's four touchdown passes came on a day in which he went 13-of-22 for just 121 yards, or that none of the Gamecocks' fans even knew his name prior to the start of preseason camp.

"There's always a little dog left in anybody," said Noland, noting a conversation he had this summer with South Carolina outside linebackers/defensive ends coach Mike Peterson, who played in the NFL for 14 seasons.

"I told Mike P, 'I know you might be old, but you got a little dog left in you,' and he said, 'Hey man, we both got a lotta dog left in us.' Those little moments like that come back to you."

For Shane Beamer, it's exactly what he expected from Noland, who gives the old "coach on the field" cliché new meaning and gives his first-year coach some real comfort in what could have been a disastrous situation at quarterback 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 think there were 11 guys tonight listed on the two-deep as a starter or backup that had never been in a South Carolina uniform," Beamer said. "That's your quarterback. That's your backup quarterback. That's your starting nickel. That's your starting corner. You worry about some of those other positions, but I never worried once about our quarterback."

Noland's story is the kind that makes college football so much fun, especially when a self-proclaimed country boy seems to be having so much fun himself. After all, he was more interested in dove hunting season starting last week than he was in reading everything being said about him on social media.

He really wasn't interested in talking about himself, either, late Saturday night after going 1-0 with the Gamecocks, earning a win for what is now his third college football team. Over and over, he kept bringing up his offensive linemen.

Sort of sounds like a coach, huh?

But down deep, Noland acknowledged that he soaked up every second of the entire day, from his family being there -- including his grandfathers and his dad's brother, Eddie, whom he hadn't seen in years -- to the energy in the locker room before the game, to the passion of the fans.

"It really didn't hit me until I got off the bus and got into the walk and gave high-fives to the fans and all that. ... It was surreal to me," said Noland, who started his playing career at Iowa State before transferring 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 schools. "I never thought I was going to get to do it again, just being on the players' side of it and going through the pregame warm-up, and just little things like that make the win just a little bit better."

On the other side of the country was one of South Carolina's biggest fans: San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft and one of Noland's best friends.

"I know more about South Carolina football than I ever thought I would, but I am so pumped for Zeb," Lance told ESPN. "I know it doesn't sound real to some people that Zeb is starting after being a GA just a few weeks ago. But I can tell you this: South Carolina is lucky to have him."

Lance, who played with Noland at North Dakota State, was the first person to text Noland when the news broke Monday that Noland would be the Gamecocks' starter.

"I know what he did for me when he got to North Dakota State," Lance said. "That was my first year really playing, and he had obviously played in some really big games when he was at Iowa State. He just brings such positive energy and was a sounding board for me. In every single area, he helped me -- mechanics, throwing the football, studying the game. I could keep going.

"He's just a winner in everything he does."

One of the first things Lance did Monday upon finding out that his buddy was putting his helmet and shoulder pads back on was to start scouting out somewhere to watch the South Carolina game. He even hit up 49ers teammates Javon Kinlaw and Deebo Samuel, a pair of former Gamecocks, for some South Carolina swag.

Lance may not be the only one. Don't be surprised if No. 8 jerseys start popping up with regularity among South Carolina fans, even if Noland plays only one more game this season. Beamer said sophomore quarterback Luke Doty should return to practice next week after injuring his foot in August.

"My job is to go out there and run the offense, eliminate turnovers and eliminate bad plays," Noland said. "I'm going to do whatever it takes to win. It doesn't matter to me who's playing quarterback, whether it's me or whoever."

And even if it was for just one night, it's a night the Noland family will never forget. Julie and Abe were running on just a few hours of sleep when they arrived in Columbia on Saturday. They flew to Mankato, Minnesota, on Thursday to watch the youngest of the Noland boys, Ben, play in Northern State's season opener, a 40-34 overtime loss to Minnesota State.

They flew back home the next day in time to see the second half of Travis' game, a 21-2 Oconee County win over Clarke Central. And then it was off Saturday morning for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Columbia.

"My wife is the one who deserves a medal," Travis said. "But it's good that we could be here to see this. It's been a long journey for Zeb to get here.

"I'm proud of him for having the courage to put the uniform back on and get back out there. He never intended for this to become a national story. He just wanted to play some more football."

And who knows what would have happened had South Carolina offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield not asked Noland to help throw to some recruits who were visiting campus back in June? Current players weren't allowed to throw to recruits.

"I watched him throw and how quickly the ball came out and was like, 'Whoa! Too bad you don't have another year of eligibility,'" Satterfield recounted.

Noland smiled and countered, "Actually, I do, Coach."

That's when the wheels started spinning, and after Doty was sidelined with his injury, Beamer made his pitch to Noland on the heels of a scrimmage that was anything but pretty for the South Carolina offense.

Noland was already getting the itch to return to the field and asked his dad that Saturday morning if he would come up for the scrimmage.

"I thought, 'I'm not driving a couple of hours to watch a damn scrimmage,'" Travis said, laughing. "But Zeb said, 'Dad, I really want you to come.' He's been gone for most of the last six years, to North Dakota State and Iowa State before that, so when he said something like that, I said to myself that I really needed to go."

Later that day they talked, and Zeb told his dad that South Carolina was serious about giving him a chance to be the quarterback. They walked back to Travis' truck, and he reminded his son that his goal was to coach and that he needed to be sure that he didn't miss out on his coaching opportunity if things went sideways on the field.

"If you can't be a GA when this is all over, then it's not worth it," Travis told his son.

But on his way back home, it hit Travis. Noland wasn't asking his dad for advice. He was asking him for his blessing.

"I guess I was thinking in my mind that he wanted me to convince him not to do it, but what he really wanted me to say was, 'Go for it,'" Travis said. "I told him to go for it and never look back."

Plus, there will be time to go hunting down the road.

"I'm going to live in the moment ... and just enjoy it," Noland said.