South Carolina’s Zeb Noland finally gets to play between the hedges

WATKINSVILLE – Zeb Noland’s family is extremely excited to see him play in Sanford Stadium for a myriad of reasons. Chief among those is the length of their commute.

“We’re excited about being able to just get in the car and drive for 10 minutes down the road,” said Travis Noland, father of the South Carolina’s quarterback. “That’s definitely not been the case for the last six years.”

No, it hasn’t.

While Zeb grew up less than 10 miles from the UGA campus where he played for his father at Oconee County High, his college football career could not have carried him much farther away from home. Zeb Noland signed with Iowa State out of high school, played for the Cyclones for three seasons, transferred to North Dakota State, then finally came back south to join the Gamecocks as a graduate assistant coach.

That’s when Zeb’s story then took a sharp, well-chronicled turn last month. First-year South Carolina coach Shane Beamer asked Noland if he would consider using his extra season of NCAA eligibility because of COVID-19 to suit up to help South Carolina with its dire situation at quarterback.

Not only did Noland agree to do that, he earned the starting job for the Gamecocks. He comes to Athens this week with two winning starts under his belt.

Now, after playing college ball 1,400 miles from home for the past five years, Noland gets to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing between the hedges.

“Pretty much since I moved to Georgia in ‘04, I’ve gone to Georgia games,” said Noland, whose family first settled in Toccoa before moving to Athens area. “I wasn’t necessarily a 100-percent fan because my dad, being a football coach, I pretty much rooted for guys my dad coached instead of teams. But I know the songs the Georgia band plays, been to the tailgates, seen some big games there. It’s almost like going home. It’s kind of comforting just simply because I know literally everything about Georgia football.

Whether Noland gets the starting nod in Saturday night’s SEC opener (7 p.m., ESPN) or even plays against the Bulldogs remains unclear at this juncture. Sophomore Luke Doty, South Carolina’s projected starter this season, returned to practice this week after missing most of preseason camp and the first two weeks of the season with a foot injury.

Beamer and the Gamecocks (2-0) understandably are playing their quarterback plans close to the vest heading into the SEC East contest against the No. 2 Bulldogs (2-0). But it sounds like Doty will at the very least see some action.

“We fully expect him to be 100 percent on Saturday night over in Athens,” Beamer said this week.

Doty played in eight games as a freshman last season, both at wideout and quarterback. He started two games as a QB and finished with 405 yards, two TDs and three interceptions on 60.6% passing and 91 yards rushing.

Noland has completed 57.8% of his passes for 346 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in a 46-0 win over Eastern Illinois and a 20-17 victory over East Carolina. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound quarterback was sacked three times and had an interception but also a threw a touchdown in the hard-fought win against the Pirates.

All that stuff is essentially immaterial for the Noland family. They’re just fired up that their oldest son is going to be suited up in a college game close to home.

While he was on his long-distance adventure as a college quarterback, his dad got to see him play only five times in five years. That wasn’t just because Ames, Iowa, is a 16-hour drive away and North Dakota State another five-hours-plus from there. It’s because Travis Noland has remained busy turning the Oconee County football program into a perennial Class 3A powerhouse.

So, Dad’s Friday nights have remained mostly spoken for. That’ll be the case again this Friday night when the Oconee County Warriors host perennial powerhouse Thomasville.

Meanwhile, Zeb’s younger brother, Ben, currently plays wide receiver at Northern State University, a Division II program located in Aberdeen, S.D. Travis Noland was there this past weekend, while his wife, Julie, drove to Greenville, N.C., to take in the Gamecocks’ game against East Carolina.

“I guess my boys were trying to get as far away from me as they could,” Travis Noland joked. “But it’s been a unique situation for our family, for sure.”

Zeb’s father actually got to see more of his son this past season at North Dakota State because COVID-19 delayed their season’s start until this spring. After backing up his best friend, Trey Lance – now of the NFL – the previous two seasons, Zeb started seven games his senior season and led the Bison with 740 yards of offense.

It was after his college career supposedly ended that Zeb Noland’s story really got interesting. Two weeks into preseason camp, Doty went down with his injury. The Gamecocks had other injuries at quarterback and the young players at the position just weren’t ready to compete. Heading into the second scrimmage of camp, Beamer asked Noland if he’d be willing to cash in the NCAA’s extra season of eligibility and suit up for the Gamecocks.

Noland didn’t accept immediately. While he has been away from home for six years, not a day had passed since Zeb left town in January 2016 without talking to his father. So, he told Beamer he’d have to talk his dad. This time, Zeb asked his father to drive over to Columbia for the next day’s scrimmage so they could talk in person.

Travis Noland knew immediately something was up. After watching the scrimmage, Zeb told his father about the proposition.

“I had only one reservation for him: If he couldn’t be a grad assistant when it’s over, to me, it wouldn’t be worth it,” Travis Noland said. “But coach Beamer assured him he would still have that opportunity when he’s through playing. So, I said, ‘Go for it, man. What do you have to lose at this point?’”

Indeed, but the stakes crank up this week. Both Zeb and his father realize that the Gamecocks face an enormous challenge inside Sanford Stadium on Saturday. The Las Vegas betting houses opened Sunday with Georgia favored by 32 points, and the line was holding at more than 30 as of Wednesday.

Zeb Noland has studied enough video of the Bulldogs’ defense to know it’s a big reason Georgia is in the national championship conversation. The Bulldogs have 10 sacks in two games, including seven in the win over then-No. 3-Clemson. They also have four interceptions, two pick-sixes and 34 QB pressures.

Meanwhile, the weakest link on South Carolina’s 2021 team reportedly is its offensive line. About this, the elder Noland is very aware.

“You almost feel like Zeb is Daniel going into a den of lions in Athens, Ga.,” Travis Noland said with a chuckle. “Georgia’s defense is really, really, really good. And we’re not sure if he’ll play at all or he’ll play every snap. So, there’s a lot of nerves from Mama’s end.”

At least this time, Zeb’s mother, Julie, and younger brother, Abe, and Travis all will able sit together and watch it unfold. They haven’t been able to do that much over past several years.

As for Zeb’s part, he said he’s not overly nervous. He’s playing on bonus time, after all, and he aims to enjoy it as much as he possibly can. So, whether he plays the whole game, none of it, gets in a little or a lot, he’s not really worried about it.

His focus and concentration this week has been totally dedicated to implementing and mastering the game plan. And he’s doing that as both a prospective starter and a future coach. He spends as much time making sure Doty and fellow quarterbacks Jason Brown and Colten Gauthier know the calls and checks as he does himself.

“Luke and I are really good friends, and we spend almost all our time together, even when he was hurt,” Zeb Noland said. “We try to do everything together so that, whether Luke’s playing or I’m playing or Jason’s playing, we’re all able to communicate about what’s going on. That’s my No. 1 priority. It’s a good, healthy competition, but we’re all going to support whoever’s playing.”

Noland points to what Georgia just did behind backup quarterback Stetson Bennett on Saturday. It’s important that every quarterback is ready to play every Saturday, regardless of their spot on the depth chart.

Or, in Zeb Noland’s case, whether he just left a coach’s desk to suit up as a player.