In the annals of offseason quarterback competitions, the starting job has been wrestled away by upstarts, underdogs and walk-ons — but a former player turned into a coach and then back into a player is a new one.
At rebuilding South Carolina, a recently hired graduate assistant will be the Gamecocks' starting quarterback in Saturday's season opener against Eastern Illinois, the school announced this week.
Zeb Noland played quarterback at Iowa State and South Dakota State, starting seven games last season for the Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse, before joining the South Carolina staff in May under first-year coach Shane Beamer.
The son of a successful high school coach in Watkinsville, Georgia, Noland was set to begin his own transition into the profession as an assistant working under South Carolina wide receivers coach Justin Stepp.
"He’s always just loved the schematics of the game," said Noland's father, Travis, the head coach at Oconee County High School. "I saw that this was something he wanted to do for a long time."
His unexpected move onto and then up the depth chart says something about the Gamecocks, who are expected to join Vanderbilt in bringing up the rear in the SEC, and reflects the strange landscape of roster management influenced by the coronavirus pandemic. Noland will be able to play in 2021 after the NCAA granted all players impacted by COVID-19 an added season of eligibility.
The unexpected return to the position also represents the final twist in a college career defined by multiple stops where Noland came close but never quite captured the opportunity for consistent playing time and success.
"For Zeb, if you knew him, he never intended for this to be a good story, he was just trying to help," said Travis Noland. "When they were serious about needing the help, he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ He never anticipated it being a big story, I don’t think."
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The path to the Gamecocks' starting lineup was made available after projected starter Luke Doty injured his left foot earlier in preseason camp. The injury, which is not expected to keep Doty out for the season, led Beamer to move Noland onto the roster and into competition with redshirt senior Jason Brown, a transfer from Saint Francis University, an FCS program in Loretto, Pennsylvania.
Brown, who threw for 28 touchdowns against only six interceptions in 18 career appearances, will be the backup in the Gamecocks' opener. Both players are expected to move down the depth chart — and Noland potentially back into his graduate assistant role — once Doty does return.
"It wasn’t like he walked in that huddle the very first day of practice and was overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do," Beamer said.
This poise may be attributed to stints at two successful programs — Iowa State is No. 8 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, and NDSU has won eight FCS national championships since 2011 — spent largely as the backup to two accomplished college quarterbacks: Brock Purdy, the Cyclones' multiple-year starter, and former NDSU starter Trey Lance, a rookie for the San Francisco 49ers.
Noland was the Bison's starting quarterback for the first seven games of the 2020-21 season, which was held this past spring, before being replaced for the final three games of the year. As the starter, Noland completed 51% of his throws with five touchdowns and six interceptions.
"I think he felt a lot of pressure there to be maybe more than what he was," Travis Noland said. "I think he had a little bit of bitterness, not toward anything that happened, just that it ended the way it ended. I guess he just felt like it didn’t end the way he wanted it to, I guess would be a better way of saying it. But that’s the way it ends for everybody, you know?
"But he was in a tough situation at North Dakota State following Trey Lance, and nothing Zeb ever did would’ve compared to what Trey Lance was able to do because they’re two totally different kinds of players. So he was always under the ‘what he couldn’t do’ rather than ‘what he could do’ kind of pressure. And that’s hard for anybody."
He also started one game as a redshirt freshman at ISU in 2017, throwing for 180 yards and two scores to lead the Cyclones past Baylor 20-13 and secure the program's first winning season in conference play since 2000. Noland began the 2018 season as the backup but was moved into the lineup due to injury, eventually starting another four games before being replaced by Purdy, then a true freshman. Noland transferred to NDSU in late October of 2018 in search of consistent playing time.
"As a dad, I’m thankful he had those struggles because it’s a rough world we live in," Travis Noland said. "There’s a lot of people that never experience what he’s had to experience, with the setbacks and the criticism and all those things. And I think all of those things will make him be a better coach one day."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: South Carolina assistant Zeb Noland goes from sideline to starting QB