MISSOULA — Makena Simis' dad had one message for his son during the 2015 season: "You're gonna get an opportunity."

And by the middle of the year, the then-sophomore and third-string quarterback was taking the field as a starter for the Montana Grizzlies. 

Starting quarterback Brady Gustafson played two games before injuring his leg against Liberty. Second-string quarterback Chad Chalich broke his foot three games later. And in came Simis. 

"I was able to step in," Simis, now a senior, said. "It was a whirlwind but I just tried to stay prepared and do everything I had to do to step in and play. Like (Dad) said, I got my opportunity. One of my goals coming out of high school was to be a starting quarterback and although it was a short stint, I got to do that. I can still claim that."

Simis' first start came against North Dakota on October 24, 2015. In that game he tied a Griz program record by passing for six touchdowns and was named FCS National Performer of the Week and co-Big Sky Player of the Week. 

Over the course of the season, Simis threw for 740 yards on 63 completions with four interceptions and seven touchdowns. On the ground, he rushed for 226 yards on 65 carries for another touchdown. With Simis starting under center, the Griz went 2-1, with the loss coming against Portland State.

Gustafson returned for the regular season finale against Montana State and into the playoffs. 

"It was definitely a really, really special experience," Simis said looking back. "I wouldn't want to change it at this point."

After the 2015 season came to a screeching halt, Simis had a decision to make. He was approached by the coaches and they said that it was a possibility that he could switch positions to wide receiver.

Simis said the coaches didn't push him in either direction. 

"Really, they left it up to me," Simis said. "They said, 'You can stay and be a quarterback. You can move to a different position and have a different role. Maybe have a chance to be on the field a little more.' I took some time to think about it."

Simis went back to his hometown of Boise over the winter break to contemplate his decision. It was a tough one. He'd only ever played quarterback. He didn't know the first thing about playing any other position. 

But after going through workouts with his high school coach, he was willing to give wide receiver a shot. 

"Coming out of that, he instilled some confidence in me," Simis said. "He said, 'Yeah. You can definitely do this.' He's coached some very good players, some guys who have been in NFL training camps. To hear that from him was a big deal and it really instilled that confidence in me that I needed. From there it was a pretty easy decision."

When Simis returned to Missoula for the spring semester in 2016, he told his coaches that he wanted to line up at H, a wide receiver position that other schools utilize as a tight end. Simis said that's where the coaches wanted him to be, so it worked out. 

The transition wasn't seamless. There were struggles. He had a learning curve.

"It was my first season as a non-quarterback ever," Simis said. "It was different for sure. It was a lot of learning. I had a very steep learning curve and I think that's still there for me. I'm still trying to learn, pick up things quickly. It was just a learning process and I kept getting better as the year went on. I got to see the field a little bit, probably not as much as I would have liked or hoped, though."

Simis' wide receiver coach Mike Ferriter agreed.

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"Makena would be the first player to tell you that initially, he struggled," Ferriter said. "He'd never played it. He'd never played anything but quarterback his entire life. He struggled. But he was fun because he had the willingness to work and to improve.

"I think over the course of a year and a half now, he's done all the things that he's needed to do that I asked for him. To see his improvements day to day, it's been extremely rewarding to see through hard work that you can completely change the type of player you've always been your whole life and help the team out in whatever way you see fit."

Simis went from starting in high-pressure situations at quarterback to being a wideout reserve. In the 2016 season, he played in only four games and caught four passes for 46 yards. 

Since Simis switched positions, Ferriter said he's used his "second-to-none" work ethic through the offseason to better himself as not only an athlete, but as a teammate and a human being.

"I should be more like Makena Simis," Ferriter said. "He's the type of person that you love to have in your room and he's the type of person that you want everyone to model after. He's just such a high-character, driven, hard working person. There's a ton of characteristics that he has that a lot of people don't have.

"He's got really, really natural leadership qualities that not a lot of people have and I think people just feed off of that. When things are tough, they look to him for answers. They look for him to do the right thing, to make a play when you need to. His leadership is phenomenal."

Come Saturday, Simis won't be just a former starting quarterback or the backup wide receiver. He's finessed his way into the starting role at H wide receiver. 

"Where I'm at now, it was good to have last year just to soak everything up and learn everything I needed to," Simis said. "I'm just excited to enjoy all this time that we're spending together. We have a really close-knit group and every time this group of guys is together, it's really fun. We have a lot of fun and at the same time we're getting a lot of work done. I look forward to that and hopefully because of that, a lot of wins will come with it, but that's to come."

Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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