It's not often North Dakota State's needed to worry about its starting quarterback staying healthy. This season might be different. Zeb Noland, a grizzled 23-year-old senior, is the No. 1 guy entering this goofy spring schedule, and he has all-conference potential. The old man, though, is followed by a couple of clean-shaven unknowns.
Logan Graetz, a redshirt freshman, is listed No. 2 on the depth chart and Cam Miller, a true freshman, is next. If Noland was to get hurt, it wouldn't be a poor bet to believe Miller would be next in line. Bison coaches are high on the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Iowan.
Backup QB has not been a major area of concern during NDSU's championship dynasty of the past decade. Carson Wentz backed up Brock Jensen for two years, for goodness sake. Easton Stick backed up Wentz, leading the Bison to a title game when Wentz missed eight games with an injury. Trey Lance was available as a true freshman to step in for the senior Stick, if needed.
Bison coaches used to say there was no reason to limit Jensen in the run game his final two years — no reason to worry about him getting banged up, in other words — because they were confident Wentz would do just fine. Wink, wink.
There might not be that luxury this spring, even if Bison offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl talks about "tremendous growth" shown by Graetz and Miller in the past several months. Fact is, neither has taken a college snap and Miller is less than a year out of high school.
When asked, though, whether NDSU was going to call fewer quarterback run plays for Noland than it did for Lance in hopes of keeping the senior healthy, Roehl said he didn't want to be inhibited by those thoughts.
"We'll cut Zeb loose and let Zeb be Zeb and play football," Roehl said.
The question would be what does cutting Noland loose mean? NDSU has long relied on its quarterback run game to add another dynamic to an offense that is often already loaded. That reliance became more pronounced when the Bison found themselves in a tight, must-win game.
After dialing back Stick for most of his senior season — except in bigger regular-season games when they needed his legs — Bison coaches unleashed him in the playoff semifinals against South Dakota State (16 carries, 147 yards) and the title game against Eastern Washington (18 carries, 121 yards).
Lance consistently ran more than Stick, his ability to run was amplified in the two biggest games of 2019. He rushed 18 times against SDSU and a remarkable 30 times for 166 yards against James Madison in the championship game. In NDSU's lone game in the fall of 2020, a gritty affair against Central Arkansas, Lance ran 15 times for 143 yards.
Noland doesn't have the zip of Stick or Lance, but he's not a statue.
"Zeb can move," offensive lineman Zach Kubas said. "Maybe not quite as mobile as Trey was, but Zeb has some wheels, too."
The trick will be to balance the need to run him to keep defenses off-balance and the need to keep him healthy.
"I think you still need to have the ability to have some of your quarterback run game," Roehl said. "Zeb is a good athlete. Does Zeb have the overall top-end speed of what Trey and Easton have? Probably not, but Zeb's a tough runner. Zeb displays some grittiness out on the field."
It's more likely the Bison will lean more on their speed and depth than their QB run game. Receiver Phoenix Sproles, injured against Central Arkansas, might not be ready for the opener against Youngstown State, but NDSU has Christian Watson, Braylon Henderson, Kobe Johnson, Jaylen Bussey and others. Plus there are talented and huge pass-catching tight ends Josh Babicz and Noah Gindorff.
"Are there different ways you can get the ball to the perimeter? Are there a couple of different things where you can manufacture some yardage? I think so," Roehl said. "But to do some wholesale changes would be foolish for how much time we have truly invested into the schemes that we have."
Noland's strength is his right arm. He rips the ball, as the kids say. He threw it only a few times in 2019 as Lance's backup, but his highlights from Iowa State impress. Most were made with Noland's throws, not runs. It helped he had NFLers Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler as targets.
Noland has been described by more than one NDSU player as a gunslinger. Roehl has said he has a little Brett Favre gambler in him.
"He does take a little more risk, but it's a calculated risk. It's not risk where you look and go, 'Why did he do that?' It's more like, 'Wow, that took guts,'" Bison receiver Cole Jacob said. "You can tell he's done it before and he's been in those situations before, so we all have a lot of confidence in the plays he makes."
Bison coaches are probably OK if Noland gambles with his arm. If he's taking risks with his legs, it could be a bigger issue for NDSU's title hopes.