By now, Makena Simis ought to be used to coming off the bench and saving Montana’s football season. But last week’s performance entered a new category for the Capital High graduate.
The senior ran for 101 yards to lead Montana to a 17-15 upset win over No. 18 Northern Arizona, keeping the Grizzlies’ playoff dreams alive and completing a full circle for the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback that he could only describe Monday as “weird.”
“I had kind of joked with some people that I wasn’t even playing quarterback this week,” said Simis, who finished 6-of-15 passing for 44 yards as Montana kept the ball on the ground. “… It didn’t feel the same as it did a few years back. It had been a long time since I had done it, and I truly really hadn’t even practiced throwing the ball for two years. That part of it, it kind of felt unnatural.”
The son of Capital football coach Todd Simis last saw time at quarterback in 2015, when injuries forced the then third-string sophomore onto the field and he responded by tying a Montana record with six TD passes in a win against North Dakota.
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He led the Grizzlies to a 2-1 record in three starts before starting quarterback Brady Gustafson returned for the regular-season finale and Montana reached the second round of the playoffs.
But following that 2015 season, a Montana coaching staff that didn’t recruit Simis asked him to switch to ‘H’ receiver, a hybrid slot receiver/tight end position.
Simis said he appreciates that Montana didn’t force him in either direction, allowing him to choose. But he admits the proposition caught him off-guard and doubt crept in. He hadn’t played the position since his Optimist days, and he returned to Boise for the Christmas break with thoughts of transferring.
But Capital receivers coach Brad Tinker sat Simis down after a workout that winter and told him he had the skills to make the transition. Simis said hearing that from a coach who’s helped several Capital receivers reach the Division I level gave him the confidence he needed to swallow his pride, turn down any transfer opportunities and return to Missoula.
With his final regular-season game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday (ROOT) against Northern Colorado, Simis said he knows he made the right choice.
“It was probably the best decision I could have ever made,” he said. “Playing H, personally, I think I’ve found a position I’m truly made for. I was never the type of quarterback to shy away from contact. Now, I get to go run into people every single play.”
Simis saw little playing time as a junior and had to fight his way onto the field on special teams. Montana then threw him another curveball, morphing its H position from a standup slot receiver into a more traditional tight end this season with his hand in the dirt. Simis responded again, rebuilding his body to add 25 pounds and stand 6-foot-2, 235 as he prepared to throw blocks instead of passes.
He earned regular playing time this fall, catching eight passes for 89 yards and a TD. But injuries caught up with the Grizzlies again when starting quarterback Reese Phillips broke a leg in Week 3, then freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen suffered a concussion two weeks ago at Weber State.
There are no regrets there whatsoever. I’m just really looking forward to this last one, and a few more games after that if we get into the playoffs.”
Makena Simis, Capital High grad
With only one quarterback on the roster not on a redshirt, junior Caleb Hill, Montana threw Simis in as an emergency quarterback last week as it prepared for Northern Arizona. Simis had run Wildcat packages in short-yardage situations all season, and as he earned more and more reps in practice, Montana coach Bob Stitt devised a plan to bring Simis in after two drives against the Lumberjacks as a change of pace.
But when Montana lost 15 yards and went three-and-out on its opening possession under Hill, Stitt turned to Simis and rode him the rest of the way. Simis knows he showed the built-up rust on some of his throws. But he hammered the Northern Arizona defense on the ground, and he set up the game-winning score with a 33-yard pass to Justin Calhoun.
“Makena was something else,” Stitt said in the postgame press conference. “He had a 100-yard day, and to not play the position for a couple years, I don’t know how many performances can match what this guy did.”
Two years after a gut-wrenching decision to leave the position, Simis finds himself back in the mix at quarterback. Jensen remained in the concussion protocol early this week, meaning Simis could see more time under center if Jensen isn’t cleared.
We just knew Makena was the guy who was going to take us where we wanted to go.”
Bob Stitt, Montana coach
Simis said he’ll keep himself ready should Montana need him again. But as his career comes to an end, Simis said he’s thankful for all of his experiences. He’ll graduate in the spring with a teaching degree, then search for a graduate assistant position.
The final goal is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a high school coach and teacher, and Todd Simis said his road at Montana will only benefit his next career.
“He’s been rewarded by hanging in there and continuing to work hard, keep a great attitude and be a great teammate,” Todd Simis said. “That’s the thing his mom and I are most proud of.
“Wins and losses and stats and starts and all that are nice. But seeing your children go through some trials and tribulations and come out on the other side as a better person and persevere, there are some great lessons he can take with him.”
Mountain View grad leading Griz defense
Capital’s Makena Simis isn’t the only Treasure Valley product filling a key role for Montana.
Junior outside linebacker Josh Buss, a Mountain View grad, was named as one of the 44 players on the watch list for the FCS national defensive player of the year, the Buck Buchanan Award, on Wednesday.
Buss ranks second on Montana and fourth in the Big Sky with 9.9 tackles per game. The 2013 5A All-Idaho Player of the Year is also terrorizing offenses behind the line of scrimmage with 12.5 tackles for loss (second in Big Sky) and 5.5 sacks (fifth in Big Sky).