One of the first phone calls Jeff Choate made after being hired as Montana State’s head football coach was to DeNarius McGhee.
In December of 2015, Choate didn’t have a definitive job in mind for McGhee nor a position to offer the former two-time Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year. But Choate values a connection to the past and he knows McGhee is one of the all-time greats to come through Montana State.
After a year on the job, one of Choate’s first phone calls went to McGhee as well. Choate’s first season ended with a 24-17 win against archrival Montana as the Bobcats won in Missoula for the first time since McGhee’s standout junior year in 2012. Choate reached out to McGhee as the graduate assistant finished up his second season as a graduate assistant for Dave Doeren at North Carolina State.
This time, Choate did have a position to offer the young man who quarterbacked the Bobcats to three straight Big Sky titles. Last month, Choate hired McGhee as MSU’s new quarterbacks coach.
“I’m a history guy so I pay attention to that stuff, whether it’s how many championships we’ve won, how many players we’ve had who are All-Americans,” Choate said on Tuesday afternoon at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. “You go look in our locker room and Sonny Holland is on one end. Dane Fletcher is in there. DeNarius is one of them.
“He represents a recent great connection. There was some great football being played here in the early 2010s and he was a huge part of that. I think that end-zone complex at Bobcat Stadium, he probably had a big part in getting that done and filling it for sure. It’s important to have a great tie to our past.”
On Tuesday, McGhee met with the Bozeman media for the first time since a stellar Pro Day in 2014 led to nary a sniff from the NFL and ultimately opened the door to a career in coaching. He deflected any inquiry to his personal legacy at MSU in the past, instead focusing on talking about how he hopes to contribute to the future.
“I’m extremely excited to be back in a place that gave so much to me,” McGhee said.
“Bozeman has been great to me. You have to remember I came in here as a 17, 18-year-old kid, was able to develop some life skills, get a degree and play some big-time football, win some championships. That’s the dream that I had before coming here. That’s the dream every kid should have who is coming to Montana State University.”
During his playing days as a Bobcat, McGhee won more football games than any Bobcat quarterback before him. He also rose to a level of fame and popularity unseen since Travis Lulay was helping the Bobcats snap “The Streak” a decade earlier.
McGhee burst onto the scene in 2010, earning Big Sky Offensive POY honors by leading the Bobcats to the Big Sky title. His sophomore year, MSU won the Big Sky outright and beat New Hampshire for the first playoff win by the Bobcats since 2006. In 2012, McGhee won for the second straight time in Missoula to cap a third straight Big Sky title and stamp his second Big Sky Offensive POY award. The Bobcats beat Stony Brook in the playoffs to advance to the FCS quarterfinals for the second straight season.
McGhee’s senior year was filled with promise but injuries to him, running back Cody Kirk and wide receiver Tanner Bleskin thwarted MSU’s national championship hopes. McGhee ended his career as one of just 14 quarterbacks in the history of college football, all levels, to throw for 10,000 yards and rush for 1,000.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder possessed a rocket arm, superb footwork, strong leadership skills and a marketable personality. After putting on a show for scouts at MSU’s Pro Day, many felt he would garner at least an NFL mini-camp invite. Instead, only the Canadian Football League came calling.
McGhee spent a brief time with the Saskatchewan Roughriders before taking a job at Florida Atlantic on Charlie Partridge’s staff. He worked for Brian Wright, the MSU offensive coordinator during McGhee’s first two years in Bozeman in 2009 and 2010. Before the 2015 season, McGhee joined Doeren’s staff at NC State. Doeren played tight end at Drake for Rob Ash in the early 1990s. Ash coached McGhee at Montana State.
“I learned a lot of ball,” McGhee said. “I was just a sponge soaking up knowledge and I’ll be the same thing here. But my job here is to get the quarterbacks to play at a level of excellence. Nothing else is acceptable.”
Last season, the Wolfpack went 7-6 including a win over Notre Dame, an overtime loss to national champion Clemson, a narrow 24-20 loss to Florida State, a win over rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a 41-17 win over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl. Choate called McGhee in November to offer the job. McGhee weighed the option for a month before deciding to return to the place his star shined brightest.
“It’s at my alma mater, a place that I love,” McGhee said. “It was a hard decision but at the same time, it was the best decision.”
Boise State transfer Ryan Finley threw for 3,059 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Wolfpack last season. He learned under McGhee and offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, also formerly of Boise State. Choate coached at Boise State from 2006 until 2010. He never crossed paths with Drinkwitz but Choate was able to talk to many people he trusted when evaluating McGhee.
“DeNarius is a grinder,” Choate said. “That’s the word that kept coming up when I talked to people about him in terms of how he prepares and what a hard worker he is and how meticulous he is. When I talk to him about this position, I told him it was his job to develop a curriculum for quarterbacks from the ground up from the feet to the top of your head in terms of film study and mechanics and coverage identification and in terms of leadership. That’s what we’ve entrusted him with.”
McGhee arrived in Bozeman right after the New Year. He found a place to live in Manhattan. Montana State incumbent quarterback Chris Murray, the 2015 Big Sky Freshman of the Year after starting MSU’s final five games of a 4-7 season, arrived back on campus on January 5. McGhee said the two have already had dinner.
MSU’s new quarterbacks coach said he has already watched every game from the 2016 season. He is working on a comprehensive breakdown of Murray and senior-to-be Tyler Bruggman, MSU’s starter for its first six games.
“We all know — if you’re a reporter, a business man, a banker — it’s all about production,” McGhee said. “My job is to produce to help the quarterbacks perform so we can help the team get where it’s supposed to be.
“We want to be Big Sky champions, national champions, etcetera, etcetera.”
The Euless, Texas native will be assigned to recruit the Dallas-Fort Worth area as MSU hopes to reopen the Texas pipeline that produced players like McGhee.
“As the staff evolves, I think it’s important to bring back Bobcats,” Choate said. “People that had a great deal of success here understand the uniqueness of this place and how special it is. They can convey that message to recruits and our current players.”
Montana State offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham also coached quarterbacks a year ago. He was on board with McGhee’s hiring, Choate said. Messingham will shift to coaching MSU’s tight ends on a day-to-day basis while also having more time to delve into game planning. BJ Robertson will shift from tight ends to working almost exclusively with the special teams, where he was also the coordinator last season.
“As the year progressed, us adding the extra coach on the offensive side, allowing Courtney to dig in more to the details of each position and bringing someone in with how our quarterback position evolved, I felt he was the perfect fit. He’s going to bring a tremendous amount of value for us, not just with the quarterbacks but with the perspective he brings to our program. He’s a winner. He’s a Bobcat.”