Ten minutes into the conversation, Milton has not mentioned his knee. Though the catastrophic injury that put his career on hold nearly three years ago is never far from his mind, the conversation around Milton has shifted. It’s not about whether Milton can play again. No, what everyone wants to know is whether he will play Sunday in the season opener against Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).
Coach Mike Norvell has not announced whether Milton or Jordan Travis will start, only heightening the anticipation for kickoff.
The fact Milton has a legitimate shot to play is a marvel of the medical and human kind, a miraculous recovery in every sense. When Milton went down onto the turf in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2018, and did not get up, no one could have pictured what awaits Sunday: Milton running onto a new home field, with 79,000-plus fans doing the Tomahawk Chop, welcoming a new season.
After Milton suffered artery and nerve damage to his leg, a dislocated knee and torn ligaments, doctors hoped he could one day walk without a limp, let alone play football. But Milton pressed forward — through setbacks and operations, trips back and forth to a specialist in Minnesota — pushing limits and boundaries to get to today.
Nothing has come easy. Rather than sit in his comfort zone as a backup at UCF, he left searching for one last chance to start again. Rather than go to a smaller school, he chose the bigger challenge: turning to a Power 5 school desperately looking for a quarterback savior to help turn its program around. Milton does not envision himself a savior, but he knows he can play at a high level and help Florida State. Whether that comes as a starter or role player — against Notre Dame or another game this season — Milton simply wants the chance to show he can still play quarterback on his terms.
“If I’m going to play I’m going to be full-go, I’m going to be better than I was or just as good,” Milton said in an interview with ESPN. “You don’t get what you deserve; you get what you earn, so you’ve got to go get it.”
When Milton started to run the UCF scout team last season, it became clear he could play again. Then-coach Josh Heupel asked Milton if he wanted to take a snap against USF in Tampa in late November, two years removed from the injury that nearly cost him his leg. Milton said no.
It was then that Milton started thinking about leaving UCF for a chance at a starting role. Florida State made the most sense — it was in the same state as UCF and it needed help at quarterback after struggling for consistency at the position over the last four years.
Norvell made no promises about the starting job, but he also told Milton he would get every opportunity to compete. Taking Milton was a no-brainer, even though the Seminoles returned three quarterbacks with experience, including Travis, who started six games last season and played in 12 during his FSU career. Norvell had a candid conversation with Travis too, making it clear why he wanted to sign Milton. He firmly believed a veteran like Milton would elevate the quarterbacks, as well as the entire team, with his leadership and work ethic in the locker room.
No one really knew how Milton would respond to being in a quarterback competition for the first time since his freshman year at UCF in 2016, especially with a reconstructed knee. But the first time Norvell saw Milton roll out in practice, he nearly cried.
“You see the work, but when you know the investment that’s gone into it, and to be able to go out there and just play free and to see the lack of hesitation, it brought a smile on my face,” Norvell said. “Just to be able to have that opportunity, it’s special.”
Norvell coached at Memphis when Milton was slinging it for UCF in 2017 and 2018. If anyone on the Florida State staff knows what’s possible, it is Norvell who, as then-Memphis head coach, watched Milton throw for 494 yards and five touchdowns in the Knights’ double-overtime win in the 2017 American championship game. Days after Milton got hurt, Norvell and Memphis played UCF again in Orlando for the conference championship, only this time without Milton. Yet the entire focus inside the stadium was on their fallen quarterback. After UCF beat Memphis again, the team dedicated the win to Milton.
There should also be no forgetting the arduous journey Milton made to get here, one that took every ounce of commitment and faith he could muster. He nearly had his right leg amputated after the helmet-to-knee hit caused blood flow issues. He was so terrified he would wake up from surgery without his leg, the first thing he did when he opened his eyes was look down and check.
What he found instead was a giant gash on his healthy left leg, as doctors removed a vein from there to help create a new artery for his right leg to restore blood flow and save it. On his right leg, he saw two gashes, a metal contraption holding everything in place and tubes sticking out, filled with blood. All that did not stop him from asking when he could play football again.
The only way for that to happen, however, was for the nerve to heal completely, but there was no medical procedure that could help. Only time would tell. So, Milton got to work, believing he would indeed play again. But imagine the uncertainty of working every hour, every day, to get back to normal, without truly knowing whether a nerve in your leg would ever function properly again.
Were there days Milton did not want to get out of bed? Days when he thought he was wasting his time, or wanted to throw it all away, quit football and move forward with his life? Of course. But Milton refused to allow his emotions to win. Were there obstacles that tested his resolve? Yes, there were. An infection in the fall of 2019 threatened to derail his comeback as he lost weight and needed a PICC line in his arm for antibiotics. When his nerve came back, his knee felt better and he could run and throw, he knew full well he would not be the UCF starter again following the emergence of his best friend, another quarterback from Hawaii Dillon Gabriel.
On the days he felt down, he gave himself a pep talk. Or his family gave him one. Or his trainers. Despite doubt, Milton never took one day off.
Then, Florida State offered him a fresh start and new perspective, a change he never expected.
“Being in Orlando for so long, it’s easy to make that decision to stay where you’re comfortable, where you know what to expect every day,” Milton said. “That was the biggest challenge. But it’s been a lot of fun from spring ball to summer workouts to fall camp. I’ve got a whole bunch of new brothers here at Florida State.”
“For me, I don’t look at what happened to him, I look at what he is now. He’s fully cleared. He’s comfortable. It’s that simple. … He doesn’t play in fear. He plays fearless because he feels 1,000% comfortable with where he is.”Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham on FSU QB McKenzie Milton
Milton made it a priority to get to know his new teammates beyond the weight room and practice field, on a more personal level. Though the situation could have been awkward with Travis, the two have formed a good relationship, to the point where Travis views Milton as another coach.
“I’m learning from him every day, taking little pieces from him and just trying to apply it,” Travis said. “I’m a quiet guy, so he’s forced me to step up as a vocal leader. One day, we had the whole offense in a meeting, and he had me go up on the board with the clicker, clicking through plays and teaching some of the guys what they need to be doing. He’s shown me the most important parts about being a quarterback.”
In addition to integrating himself within the locker room, Milton had to learn an entirely new playbook. He says there are similarities to what he ran offensively under former UCF coach Scott Frost in his first two years in Orlando, but the biggest challenge has been learning the new terminology and signals. “But I feel like I’m finally starting to speak the same language as the coaches,” Milton said.
What is different for him compared to the other quarterbacks, of course, is his knee. Florida State coaches were extremely mindful throughout fall training camp of how many reps to give Milton, so as to not overtax him. When they could, they gave Milton and Travis the same number of reps, but Milton got more time off for rest.
Milton also has to do more than his teammates to prepare for practice. Every morning at 6:15 a.m., two hours before practice begins, Milton is in the training room for what he calls “prehab.” A lot of time is spent in the pool doing hip mobility exercises to get his body loosened up. When he goes upstairs for pre-practice meetings, Milton is also doing stretching exercises to stay loose, something he did before his injury. It worked so well before that he continues the same routine. And whatever he does for his right knee, he does for his left. The same goes for his shoulders, which need to be strong and stable to perform at an elite level. It has been three years since he has used his shoulders regularly as a quarterback, and he is keenly aware of that, too.
Given all of these factors, the fact Milton is competing for a starting job is remarkable. Taking nearly three years to get here? Milton likes to describe it this way: “The days are long, but the years are short.”
“For me, I don’t look at what happened to him, I look at what he is now,” Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said. “He’s fully cleared. He’s comfortable. It’s that simple. People on the outside, they looked at the injury and they looked at what happens to the normal person with that injury.
“But he’s not normal. He’s a special person. His knee feels good. When he feels good, his natural instincts take over, and he’s not thinking about his knee. He’s thinking about what he’s done his entire life, and that’s what puts me at ease, that’s what makes me calm about it. He doesn’t play in fear. He plays fearless because he feels 1,000% comfortable with where he is.”
Ultimately, the question is whether Milton has done enough in practice to win the starting job. He and Travis are listed with “or” next to their names on the depth chart headed into the Notre Dame game.
“I’ve got a great deal of confidence in what McKenzie is going to do. I have a great deal of confidence in how he’s going to prepare,” Norvell said when asked about what his decision will be. “But at the end of the day, it’s not just about him being given a rep. It’s about doing what he’s done his entire life and earning that rep, and that’s what I told him when he came here and that’s what it’s going to be. I can promise you, he wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s what makes him special.”
Milton remains adamant he does not want any sympathy snaps, saying, “If I’m in there, I’m legit in there. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.”
“Through summer workouts, being able to do more stuff, and feeling back to normal, I’m gaining more confidence every day,” Milton says.
“I feel like my mindset is,” Milton says, “but I don’t think it will ever be back to normal because of the scars and stuff like that. In terms of fluidity and movement and feeling comfortable on the football field, I feel normal. I feel even more confident than I did prior to getting hurt in terms of mentally understanding what the offense is doing, what the defense is doing. I feel really good.”
He has pictured how it will feel waiting in the tunnel to run onto the field, in a bigger stadium, in front of a bigger crowd, in what will be the most impactful game of his life. But once the moment passes, Milton will be locked in, with one job. The same job he had when he led UCF to 25 straight wins as the starting quarterback between 2017 and 2018.
Winning. That would truly make everything feel back to normal.
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.