Blake Bortles is unknown no more

Originally Published: December 30, 2013
By Andrea Adelson | ESPN.com

Blake BortlesAP Photo/Alex MenendezWhen Blake Bortles left the field after beating South Florida, he had solidified himself among UCF's greatest quarterbacks.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The man who could be NFL draft quarterback king reminds us once again that recruiting is sometimes as reliable as trying to hit the bull's-eye on a dartboard blindfolded.

Blake Bortles received zero scholarship offers from the big three schools in his very own state.

Florida passed.

Miami passed.

Florida State, like several other schools, thought maybe tight end.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel's injury was a major factor in Florida's collapse last season.

Bortles, built like a linebacker but athletic like a running back, wanted to play quarterback. Only one school followed him closely enough to truly believe in his talent and his skill set, to see his full potential at the position.

Hometown UCF wanted Bortles to stick around Orlando, hoping he could elevate the program from perennial sleeping-giant status to fully awakened BCS party-crasher. He has done that over the past two seasons, taking the No. 15 Knights to 21 total victories, a first American Athletic Conference championship and a first BCS bowl game, against No. 6 Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Wednesday.

But he also has elevated himself into rarefied territory. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Bortles is rated among the top quarterback prospects for the 2014 draft, quite a jump for a player who started his high school career as a defensive back. Though Bortles has not announced whether he will leave school early for the draft or return for his senior year, there is no doubt he has developed into a top-notch NFL prospect.

And he did it while the folks two hours up the road in Gainesville decided to go in a different direction at quarterback, choosing Bortles' crosstown rival Jeff Driskel -- the No. 1 rated quarterback in the Class of 2011. Driskel was rated the can't-miss prospect. Bortles, one year older, was barely rated at all out of Oviedo High.

Their roles have flipped. Quarterback remains a glaring problem area for the Gators headed into 2014.

"Recruiting's not an exact science," Oviedo coach Wes Allen said. "Some guys have it down pretty close. You miss on some kids. I bet there are some schools that would like to have Blake Bortles as their quarterback who didn't come in here and see him."

Though it looks foolhardy now, there are reasons recruiters missed on Bortles. He started the first half of his sophomore season at defensive back before coaches moved him to quarterback. At the time, Oviedo ran the wing-T, not the best offense to showcase his skill set.

Bortles also played baseball, where he batted and threw left-handed. (He also is a lefty on the golf course.) His brother, Colby, played, too, and is a freshman infielder at Ole Miss. Blake Bortles spent his summers playing baseball while squeezing in a few quarterback camps. At all of them, he was virtually unknown.

UCF had an eye on him, though. Tim Salem, an assistant at the time, had kids who played youth sports with Bortles. He saw the talent before any other football assistant did. Offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe says now, "He's a guy we probably knew more about than any other school. Where he wasn't that heavily recruited, we were pretty certain he could be a good quarterback."

When Bortles began his junior year, Oviedo moved to a spread offense. Bortles flourished, setting county records for passing yards. But his team went 3-7, leading to more questions about whether he could play quarterback in college. When the season ended, it was back to playing outfield for the baseball team.

[+] EnlargeJeff Godfrey
AP Photo/Garry JonesJeff Godfrey, a former UCF quarterback, caught the game-winning TD against Louisville from Bortles.

UCF never wavered, though, and Bortles committed before his senior year began. But any thoughts of coming into school and immediately taking the starting job were squelched when he arrived on campus in 2010. UCF had signed another athletic quarterback out of Miami named Jeff Godfrey, who enrolled a semester early and had a leg up on Bortles because he had been there months earlier.

Godfrey started the year and earned Conference USA Freshman of the Year honors as UCF won the league championship and beat Georgia in the bowl game to cap what was the most successful season in school history at the time.

"I know Blake doesn't like to sit there and watch anyone play," Allen said. "He's a team-first guy, and he was never going to rock the boat on anything. A lot of colleges that came through during the spring after he was redshirted asked me, 'Is Blake going to stay at UCF?' I went to lunch with him one day and asked him, 'What are your thoughts?' He said, 'Coach, I am not going anywhere. This is the team I want to play for. This is the school I want to go to. I am going to work as hard as I can to help our football team.'"

Though Godfrey was the starting quarterback, coaches saw Bortles' talent. Taaffe sat Bortles down during that freshman season and told him, "You can be an NFL quarterback if you really commit yourself. If they cut a quarterback out of a cookie cutter in the NFL, you'd be the guy. It's going to be about your preparation, the commitment you make and becoming the best quarterback you can."

Godfrey started all 12 games the following season, but Bortles started playing, too -- driven to win the starting job, fueled by the recruiting snub. It became apparent Bortles would be the quarterback of the future, and that was solidified when Godfrey decided to leave the team. He has since returned as a receiver, catching passes from the guy who used to be his understudy.

Behind Bortles, UCF has posted the best back-to-back seasons in school history. Unexpectedly, really. This season, Louisville went into the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the American. But UCF went into Louisville on a Friday night in October and stunned the Cardinals.

Bortles engineered a thrilling come-from-behind win, helping his team overcome a 28-7 third-quarter deficit with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Godfrey with 23 seconds left to win 38-35. In the huddle before the game-winning drive, Bortles told his teammates they would drive down the field and win.

[+] EnlargeGeorge O'Leary and Blake Bortles
AP Photo/Alex MenendezBortles trusted coach George O'Leary's plan rather than transfer in his first two years at UCF, and it worked out for the best.

"Good thing it turned out the way it did," Bortles told reporters in Arizona during a Fiesta Bowl news conference.

Bortles ended up earning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors over Cards quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in his respective recruiting class, as well.

"I'm so proud of him," receiver J.J. Worton said of Bortles. "He's become the ultimate quarterback. He can do it all -- run, pass and he can catch, too. I'm not going to say too much about it but he says he's got the best hands on the team. I'll compete for that.

"He keeps everyone calm when the tight situations come down to the wire. We wouldn't want anyone in the huddle other than him."

UCF has had only one player go in the first round of the NFL draft, quarterback Daunte Culpepper in 1999. Bortles could join him there. All because UCF coach George O'Leary saw what others did not.

"He's meant the world to me," Bortles said. "I've enjoyed every minute playing for him. He gave me the opportunity that no other school in the country did, and that was to play quarterback at the college level. I am very thankful for Coach O'Leary."

Some NFL team will end up thankful, too.

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