UCF coach George O’Leary has resorted to a tried-and-true response when he is asked about the possibility of junior quarterback Blake Bortles leaving for the NFL.
“Blake who?” O’Leary asks, as if pretending to forget his quarterback’s name will negate all the attention the 6-4, 230-pound junior has received leading up to UCF’s matchup against Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl late Wednesday night.
But perhaps O’Leary is being slyer than he’s letting on. After all, “Blake who?” was exactly how most would respond until Bortles threw for 3,280 yards, 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in leading UCF to an 11-1 record and its first BCS bowl.
Recently, he has been touted in some circles as a potential top-10 pick if he decides to declare for the NFL Draft. That’s quite the journey for a guy who was an overlooked prospect who wasn’t a lock to play quarterback coming out of high school.
Coming out of Oviedo High School before the 2010 season, Rivals.com rated Bortles as a three-star prospect. Purdue and Tulane wanted him to play tight end. Only UCF and Colorado State saw him as a quarterback.
“Tight end was never an option,” Bortles said.
The Knights were in his backyard, and O’Leary was aware of Bortles’ exploits as quarterback in a Wing-T offense, a scheme that relies on lots of misdirection, bootlegs and little throwing. But when Bortles arrived at a UCF camp, O’Leary saw he could make all the required throws to succeed in college.
The coach also thought Bortles could play tight end, but that only reinforced the notion that Bortles could stick at quarterback.
“If he didn’t play quarterback, he’d be a heck of a tight end,” O’Leary said. “That’s what I looked at. When you look at quarterbacks, I look at them as can they play another position? I think the day of just strictly the dropback quarterback is over. I think the pass rush, the pressures they put on athletes today, you got to be able to avoid a rush and make a play, take a bad play, make a good play out of it.”
Bortles had to wait awhile to get his chance. He redshirted in 2010 while another freshman, Jeff Godfrey, led the Knights to 10 wins. Godfrey was again the starter in 2011, but Bortles got some action, throwing 110 passes and six touchdowns.
Bortles had loftier goals though.
“I kind of was just like I’ve got to stick it out and beat this kid out,” Bortles said. “If I want to play in the NFL, then I’ve got to be the best quarterback on the team.”
Bortles did just that. After UCF posted a 5-7 record in 2011, Godfrey asked to transfer. He spent the spring semester away from the program but ultimately returned the next season as a wide receiver.
Over two seasons, Godfrey has caught 77 passes for 775 yards and seven touchdowns. His relationship with Bortles was good before, and that hasn’t changed.
“People often ask that question thinking we probably don’t like each other or he doesn’t like me, things of that sort,” Bortles said. “But we’ve had a great relationship from Day One and have been able to maintain our friendship and have really been good friends ever since we got to college.”
As a redshirt sophomore, Bortles led UCF to a 10-4 record and a victory over Ball State in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, throwing for 25 scores and rushing for eight more.
But the NFL hype didn’t arrive until his junior season, after Bortles led UCF to an upset of presumed top pick Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville in mid-October.
Bortles decided early on not to listen to it. He told his parents not to read about it and not to talk to reporters.
He has put in paperwork to the NFL Draft advisory board to see where he might go, but he won’t seriously discuss it until after the Fiesta Bowl, when he will sit down with O’Leary and his family.
It might be hard for Bortles to ignore while constantly being asked questions about it, but Godfrey believes he has.
“I believe him when he says that,” Godfrey said. “He’s a pretty straight-up guy. He’s going to tell you what he’s going to do. Hopefully, he gives us another year, and if he doesn’t then God bless him, and he’s onto the next level.”
Bortles’ draft stock will likely be helped by a couple top quarterbacks opting to return for another collegiate season — Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.
Petty said earlier this week that he felt he wasn’t ready for the NFL. He also has a scouting report on his bowl opponent.
“Blake is a tremendous talent at quarterback,” Petty said. “As a quarterback myself, I want to be with the best. I feel like I’m going up against the best here.”