By Trey Williams
The long odds Malik McGue appeared to face in becoming Army’s quarterback appear to have shrunk significantly.
Granted, the Science Hill alumnus and 2014 Mr. Football finalist is only four games into his freshman season and the understudy of two capable quarterbacks. But McGue is still playing quarterback after a year at West Point’s on-campus prep school, and he’s proving to prep quickly.
The 5-foot-8 McGue, playing behind junior Ahmad Bradshaw and sophomore Chris Carter, quarterbacked the Black Knights (3-1) on two touchdown drives in a 66-14 win at Texas-El Paso on Sept. 17. He was 2-of-2 passing for 63 yards and had an 8-yard run among his four carries for 14 yards while engineering the Black Knights’ triple-option offense. And he threw Army’s lone TD pass of the game – a 39-yarder in stride to Joe Walker up the right sideline.
“It seemed like my first touchdown since high school, even though I had touchdowns at prep school,” McGue said. “But at prep school you only have like 15 people there watching your games. It just felt good to throw a touchdown and hear the crowd behind you. It gives you another level of excitement. It felt really good to get my first touchdown of my college career.”
Third-year Army head coach Jeff Monken hasn’t been surprised by McGue’s signal-calling aptitude.
“Oh, I definitely think he’s a quarterback and I think he can be a really good one for us,” said Monken, who used to make trips to Johnson City when he was a Georgia Southern assistant under Paul Johnson. “He has a touchdown pass already this year. … He’s very athletic. He’s quick.
“He’s a small guy. You know, there’s not a lot people that’d say, ‘Yea, he can be our quarterback.’ But in this system he can be our quarterback.”
Of course, people who were certain McGue’s height would land him at slotback and/or punt returner could end up correct, too. McGue began returning punts last week in a 23-20 loss at Buffalo. He made one fair catch and returned one for 18 yards.
“That’s our longest return of the year on punt,” Monken said. “We’ve lined him up at slot and played him some there in practice. He hasn’t gotten any reps yet in games at slotback, but he’s such a smart kid, such a good student of the game that the first couple of days we put him at slotback he just kind of fell right in and knew exactly what to do because he was paying such close attention with coach (Mitch) Ware in the quarterback meetings. He was able to jump right in there and do it.
“He’s gonna play somewhere and be on the field. He’s just too good of an athlete and too good of a football player not to have on the field somewhere.” McGue is likely to be returning punts when Army visits Duke on Oct. 8 after an open week.
Returning punts is a fun stopgap for getting his hands on the football. McGue knew playing quarterback wasn’t a given when he signed with Army, but he felt like it was a place he’d have a fair chance at controlling his own destiny.
“They told me they were gonna give me the opportunity to play quarterback,” he said. “But they told me there was always the possibility of playing slot. So the way I thought of it was that if I didn’t go out there and perform early in camp at quarterback then I’d be moved to slot. And I really wanted to play quarterback. So I just tried to prove myself early in camp.”
McGue and Monken both mentioned how helpful Bradshaw and Carter have been with McGue. The team-first vibe made an impression on McGue.
“Ahmad and Chris were a huge part in helping me be comfortable,” he said, “letting me know what Coach Ware, the quarterbacks coach, likes and stuff like learning the playbook. They’ve done a good job from day one molding me.
In camps and stuff they’d always stay extra hours trying to help me learn the playbook and everything. …
“I mean I do want to play quarterback, but we’ve got two really good quarterbacks right now that are moving the offense pretty well. Right now, as a freshman I still have a lot to learn. Ahmad and Chris both have had a great start to the season. Up until last week we didn’t have any turnovers and we only have two turnovers on the season. So what they’re doing right now with the offense is really good. I’m just trying to learn and then hopefully get to the level of play they’re at right now and then next year just see what happens.”
Monken wouldn’t want to speculate about when would be a realistic time for McGue to reach the top of the depth chart at quarterback. He notes the fact that Bradshaw beat out senior A.J. Schurr last year when he was a sophomore, only to get beat out by Carter, then a freshman, for the start in the Army-Navy game.
“So you just never know what’s gonna happen,” Monken said. “As Malik continues to get experience and practices and gets more reps in games and just gets more comfortable, who knows? It’s a battle every week. I’ve never been one to promise anybody, ‘Hey, the job is yours and you’re not gonna lose it unless you’re hurt.’ It’s your job until somebody’s capable of doing the job better. And that’s certainly the case with everybody on our team, including our quarterbacks. So those guys know and I think there’s a really good healthy competition.
“He’s got two really good guys ahead of him. I know those guys are both eager to see Malik improve and get better, and they do a lot to help him. And like I said, he’s a smart football player. He figures things out really quick. He listens to what Mitch tells him and he’s caught on.”
McGue will return to North Carolina when Army visits Wake Forest on Oct. 29. The Demon Deacons offensive line is captained by Dobyns-Bennett alumnus Ty Hayworth. McGue said his father, Roderick, has worked with some of Hayworth’s family in Kingsport.
McGue also got some work done in Kingsport, ending Dobyns-Bennett’s 19-game wins streak against Science Hill despite playing quarterback with an injured shoulder in 2013. He finished his career 3-0 as a starting quarterback against the Indians.
Army has lost 14 straight to Navy, a streak that Monken helped start when he worked under Johnson at Navy in 2002. He chuckles after hearing that McGue snapped a similar skid against his high school’s archrival.
“I hope history repeats itself,” Monken said.
Don’t bet against it.
“A lot of people in Johnson City have talked about that (the Dobyns-Bennett and Navy streaks),” McGue said. “Hopefully, we get that done this year. I’m confident that we will. That’d be really big and exciting to be a part of.”
Monken is as enthused as ever about landing McGue, who really only had Furman, Chattanooga and Tennessee State to seriously consider. McGue said Science Hill coach/Army veteran Stacy Carter told him he thought he’d be a good leader at Army, but never pressured him in that direction.
“Each kid finds his home at the right place, and I think this is the right place for Malik,” Monken said. “We’ve got a lot of guys like him here – that maybe didn’t get recruited by a lot of big schools or didn’t get any scholarship offers at all. But they found their home here and they’re thriving in this program and this system and it’s the right system for them.
“We’ve been really impressed with him. He’s just a great kid. He’s a leader, a very smart football player. People talk about football IQ; he’s got a really high football IQ. He’s really athletic. We’re really excited about him.”