Perhaps the story begins, as so many sports movies do, at the pinnacle of achievement. The veteran quarterback, whose career was thought to be over, comes off the bench to lead his team to victory, a storybook climax that leaves the audience cheering. After the game, the quarterback describes throwing the winning touchdown pass as “surreal.”
“It’s those moments you dream of as a kid,” says Zeb Noland, the main character in this real-life sports drama. “You always think about it. I’m in my whatever year of playing and you still dream about those moments. Even at practice every day, you think about making those throws and just doing your job, and that’s what it came down to.”
Zeb’s 2021 football season at the University of South Carolina admittedly sounds more like a screenplay than a playbook. The young man from Georgia — by way of Iowa and North Dakota — might be the most unlikely starting quarterback in school history.
In Huntsville, Texas, on May 2, 2021, North Dakota State lost to Sam Houston State in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. His senior season at NDSU delayed half a year by a pandemic, Zeb lost his starting quarterback job and spent the finale watching from the sidelines.
“The last time I took my pads off at Sam Houston, I looked down and cut my tape off and I thought to myself, this is the last time I was going to do this, and it hit hard,” Zeb says. “My whole life’s been around football because my dad’s a head coach, and I’ve been around it my entire life.”
Zeb played for his dad, Travis Noland, at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Georgia, and planned to follow him into coaching. In June, Zeb arrived in Columbia as a graduate assistant, working on a master’s degree. They approached a family acquaintance, Shane Beamer, the Gamecocks’ first-year head coach, and Zeb was offered a job helping the offensive coaching staff.
Part of his duties, along with fetching coffee and making copies, was working with the receivers and helping with summer camps. After watching Zeb sling balls around the practice field one day, offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield teased him that it was too bad his eligibility had run out. Well, actually …
Due to the pandemic, the NCAA granted athletes an extra year of eligibility. Zeb, who spent three years at Iowa State before transferring to NDSU, was still able to play, but the idea was not seriously considered until starting quarterback Luke Doty had his foot stepped on during an August practice session.
“It wasn’t anything that we talked about during the interview process,” Shane says. “It was something that we joked around with him back and forth throughout the month of July, but obviously it became very real once Luke got hurt. But it wasn’t the reason we hired him.”
Luke’s foot was immobilized, his availability for the season opener against Eastern Illinois in jeopardy, and the Gamecocks’ quarterback ranks were down to a freshman, a walk-on, and a transfer from St. Francis University in Pennsylvania. Zeb, who had been doing what he called “old man workouts” to stay in a modicum of fitness, felt the comeback itch during a scrimmage.
“I didn’t have the ball in my hand, or have any control,” Zeb says. “I’m a GA. I’m standing there, signaling, doing my job. But I wanted more, you know what I mean? I just felt like a little pup over there.”
After consulting with coaches and having a heart-to-heart with his dad, Zeb made the switch from university employee to student-athlete. But the story is not a straight line to glory. There were a series of you-can’t-make-this-up highs and lows.
High: Zeb leads the Gamecocks to wins over Eastern Illinois and East Carolina. Low: Quarterbacking in Athens, where he watched games as a youngster, Zeb’s hand is stepped on by a University of Georgia lineman, leading to stitches and Luke’s return to the field. High: With Luke’s foot ailing again, Zeb leads the aforementioned comeback versus Vanderbilt. Low: After being knocked around during a loss at Texas A&M, Zeb undergoes knee surgery and the St. Francis transfer, Jason Brown, takes over.
With so much action to recall, there might be a few pages missing from this script. Suffice it to say that after the season Zeb returned to coaching, carrying new lessons he can eventually pass along to his own players. Fans, meanwhile, will turn those lessons into legend as the Zeb Noland Story becomes part of Gamecock lore.