Blake Bortles has risen from relative obscurity to become a potential top-five pick. Garrett Gilbert has endured a roller-coaster ride of five-star highs and five-interception lows. What do both quarterback prospects have in common? An opportunity for a fresh start.
OVIEDO, Fla. -- Wes Allen's truck takes a right off Broadway and onto Central Ave., and he asks if, for lunch, a local place or a chain would be best.
After deciding on the former -- and as Central Ave. becomes Alafaya Trail -- the coach keeps heading south toward a barbecue joint and, as is often the case when Blake Bortles
is the topic, the conversation steers in the direction of the quarterback's girlfriend, Lindsey Duke.
Duke, Allen explains, might well be waiting for us there. She's been a waitress at the place for a while, and Allen has known her since she was in high school, when she and Bortles started dating.
The story serves to drive home two points about a player that America is still getting to know.
First, it demonstrates that, even if Bortles' life seems flashy to those on the outside looking in, he still hasn't changed much since Allen coached him as a lightly recruited prep star. Second, it illuminates the shadows in which this potential top-five NFL draft pick has developed.
Who is Blake Bortles?
Those here, and on the Central Florida campus just a five-minute drive away, would tell you he's the same kid he ever was.
Yes, his fame has come suddenly. Yes, it's fairly certain that the job security of some NFL team's general manager and head coach will ride on his ability to develop from a raw talent into a franchise quarterback. And yes, he'll be in New York on Thursday
, with the look of a player made to land on Broadway (the one in Manhattan, not Oviedo).
But no, he's not much different than he was when he started dating Duke, when he won the job at Oviedo High, or when he picked Central Florida and, one year later, stuck there through a bleak start.
"That's something I take pride in," he says, sitting in his high school locker room. "You hear all these stories about guys changing. They get to college and they change. They go to the NFL and they get money and become famous and they change. I hope to be sitting in this locker room one day with three Super Bowls, still doing the same thing and having people saying the same thing: 'He's the same kid he was when he was here at Oviedo High School.'
"I'm striving to be the same person I always have been."
There's no question, though, that everything around him is changing. And he's OK with that. This will just be one more set of shadows to come out of.
Last summer, Bortles and Jeff Driskel showed up together at a youth baseball game in their
shared hometown, which created a buzz. Or, more accurately, Driskel created a buzz. With a
large crowd forming for autographs around the Florida starter, Bortles, the UCF quarterback,
stood apart with a few young kids.
Until recently, Bortles hadn't even been considered the best quarterback of his age from
Oviedo, a sleepy Orlando suburb of 33,000.
"To be honest with you, I look back at that day, it kinda hurt," Allen says. "It hurt me, because I
love the kid. Jeff's a great football player, don't get me wrong. But I'm thinking, What's going
through Blake's mind, how's Blake reacting to that?
And you never saw it bother Blake. It
was, 'Hey, Jeff's the quarterback of the Gators, it's Florida. Yeah, we're in Orlando, but that's the
Gator quarterback.' "
Blake Bortles (left) flew far under the national radar during his time at Oviedo High School, while Jeff Driskel shot to the top of prospect rankings as quarterback for crosstown Oviedo Hagerty. (Scott David Photography (left)/Jim Wentz, Sanford Herald)
Playing for crosstown Oviedo Hagerty, Driskel was ranked as the No. 1 quarterback in America
in 2011. Conversely, Bortles, who entered high school wanting
to play linebacker or running back, finished his run at Oviedo as
the 44th-ranked pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2010 by Rivals.com and an
unranked two-star prospect
by Scout.com. His only offer from a BCS conference team (UCF was still in Conference USA at the time) came from Purdue -- to play tight end.
"He carries that. He doesn't talk about it a lot, but it's there," his father, Rob Bortles, says. "He
can tell you, the combines and things that he went to, the quarterbacks he competed against at
that point, he can tell you where they are and what they've done. He'd never talk about it. But
you ask him, 'What did this guy do?', he'll give you the stats and tell you how much he
played. Again, it's the competitive nature. So the 'Who is Blake Bortles?' thing is really true. He
didn't get anything."
The irony in Bortles' insistence on playing quarterback in college -- a major reason for selecting
UCF -- is that he fought a move to that position in the first place. In middle school, he prided
himself, as the son of a former Georgia Southern linebacker, on hitting. Even a growth spurt
wasn't enough to convince him the switch would be right for him.
And though he adapted, there were parts of Bortles' linebacker mentality that he never got
around to adjusting.
Initially reluctant to play quarterback, Bortles left a lasting impression at Oviedo High, leading the team to a 9-2 record as a senior while developing an affinity for the position. (Scott David Photography)
Asked to describe Bortles, Allen recalls two plays. The first came in a blowout loss his junior year, when Lake City Columbia defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan
, now a first-round NFL prospect himself, came free on the blind side and "cut (Bortles) in half." The hobbled quarterback begged to stay in, despite the score and regardless of how he felt. The second came later that year against Winter Springs. After lobbying on first- and second-and-goal, Bortles got Allen to call "RD-5 Jet Roll" on third down, saying he could run over a corner -- which he did to key an upset win.
If that unorthodox style was one reason Bortles wasn't as highly recruited, another might have been his decision to skip some elite quarterback camps and recruiting combines. And those two things weren't wholly unrelated. Both went back to the concept of team. Bortles explains that his baseball coach in Oviedo had a rule that players had to play over the summer with their high school teammates. So he listened, and carried it over to football. That meant making personal sacrifices.
"I think that was a big part of why he was such a successful coach," Bortles says of his former baseball skipper. "So I took that over to football; it was the same thing. I could go to all these camps, but while I'm missing all these workouts and these 7-on-7s, I'm losing time with the team that really matters, my high school team. I'm gonna show these guys how dedicated I really am, and work my butt off to help this team become better."
Oviedo went from 3-8 in 2008 to 9-2 in '09. Bortles stayed in the area, enrolling at Central Florida. A year later, Driskel headed to Gainesville.
Bortles wasn't the only quarterback UCF brought aboard in 2010. In fact, Jeff Godfrey was more highly regarded at the time, and the early enrollee had the inside track on the starting job by the time Bortles arrived on campus that summer.
Godfrey got the nod in September, the Knights went on to win their second conference title and first bowl game in program history, and he landed on the Davey O'Brien watch list
heading into 2011. Bortles, who ended up redshirting the season, could've transferred. Instead, he reached an incredibly logical conclusion. He wanted to play in the NFL, and "if I wanna do that," he recounts now, "I gotta be the best quarterback on my own team, or I have no shot."
In Oviedo, Bortles had to vie for the attention of colleges with Driskel across town. Vying for snaps was different, but the idea was the same: to compete. Bortles knew he wasn't the natural athlete that Godfrey was, so he'd have to improve everywhere else, and that needed to show up in his limited opportunities.
And it did. UCF coach George O'Leary started putting Bortles in during the second half of games in which the Knights had fallen flat and faced deficits. Although comeback efforts against UAB and Southern Miss fell just short, Bortles clearly provided a spark in relief.
"There was a moment when he was subbing in," O'Leary explains. "We put him in, and it was a two-minute drill, and he completed five passes in a row that were real NFL-type throws. The window was there, he was hitting them on the numbers. That's when you say, 'We have something. We have to give this guy more opportunities to play.' "
Not everyone was sold -- people in the program remember Phil Steele's College Football Preview projecting Tyler Gabbert as UCF's 2012 starter that summer -- but the people who mattered didn't need much more convincing.
And those people all had their moments, like Allen did at Oviedo, and like O'Leary did with those five throws. For UCF receiver J.J. Worton, it was a play in 2011, near the end of a game after Bortles had come in for Godfrey, when the backup lowered his shoulder on a defender to get a couple more yards instead of going out of bounds. For center Joey Grant, who has known Bortles since the two were teenagers, it was the way he commanded the team in a bowl win over Ball State the following season. The common thread in every story: Bortles' intangible qualities in big moments.
"When it comes down to crunch time and the game's on the line, he rises to the occasion," Grant says. "That's whether he's playing football or taking the last shot in pickup basketball, or if he needs a bull's-eye in darts to win the game. Coming into college, I didn't really lose much. And Blake beats me in pretty much everything we do. He's clutch, whether it's ping-pong or football. He's just got a knack for getting the job done."
Bortles clasps hands with his parents, Rob and Suzy. Rob remembers a young Blake vowing that, if he became famous, he'd be "the guy who's signing everything until his pen runs out of ink." (Courtesy of UCF Athletics)
In the middle of the season last fall, an NFL personnel man asked a UCF coach if he thought Bortles would declare for the 2014 NFL Draft. The coach said he didn't know if Bortles was quite ready, then said that if there were somehow always less than two minutes left on the clock, his opinion might be different.
That, of course, was before Bortles led UCF to a stunning win at Louisville, knocking off another quarterback -- Teddy Bridgewater
-- who'd overshadowed him. And before the Knights' nine-game winning streak to finish the season, including a 52-42 win over heavily favored Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. And before everything around him changed.
Few would've imagined that Bortles would be a potential top-five pick eight or nine months ago -- not even Bortles himself.
"Yeah, I probably would've said, 'No way,' " he says with a smile. "No way I thought that would happen. But I think everything we went through this season as a team, it's been awesome. I've played in a program at UCF and in an offense that I think has prepared me really well for the NFL. It was a dream that really became a reality late in the year."
Driskel is still at Florida, looking to finally make good on his promise as a senior. Godfrey, who actually caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Bortles against Louisville, is hoping to make it in the NFL as a receiver. Bridgewater is likely to hear his name called after Bortles' on draft day.
Bortles played so well as a backup QB at UCF that his main competition for the top job, Jeff Godfrey (No. 2), was converted into one of Bortles' receiving targets. (Courtesy of UCF Athletics)
And the way the other
kid from Oviedo, the other
quarterback at UCF leap-frogged all of them is and
isn't complicated. The road, of course, was winding and long. But the truth is linear. Bortles just kept competing.
He's still like that, too, as his college roommates will tell you. Grant recounts the story of how it took Bortles a half-hour to find the golf club he threw on the 17th hole a few weeks back, when it became clear he was about to lose a round. Worton explains how they got a dartboard at their off-campus place, and Bortles had no idea how to play, but practiced relentlessly.
"It's anything and everything," Worton says. "We'll be driving side by side, and the first thing he'd say to you is, 'Yo, I dusted you back there.' It takes nothing -- just out of nowhere, the competitiveness comes out."
Bortles escapes the grasp of Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson while helping lead UCF to its first ever victory over a Big Ten team last September. Bortles threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
Most of the stories have a Joe-Montana-pointing-out-John-Candy-at-the-Super-Bowl
feel to them.
It's natural, because to Bortles, what applies on the dartboard or the golf course goes on the football field. And when he's trying to explain the "it" factor all his peers say he has, that comes out.
"I think it's just having the ability to make plays," he explains. "I think when you see someone do something unconventional or unorthodox, you just say, 'Wow, that's it.' You don't teach that. You can't practice that. You can't drill that. It just happens. You can make something out of nothing. I think that's the 'it' factor. And I think it's having a mindset, believing that you're gonna be successful."
So if you deduce, after all this, that Bortles is a competitor and a regular guy, then his dad has two stories to reinforce the idea, both from before anyone could tell where the kid was headed.
The first occurred at Atlanta Braves spring training, when the son observed how some players had time for fans and others didn't. Blake, who was not, at the time, old enough to even play on a big diamond, told his dad, "If I ever get a chance to be somebody, I wouldn't be that guy. I'd rather be this guy." And, as Rob recalls, Blake then pointed at "the guy who's signing everything until his pen runs out of ink."
The second story comes from one of Blake's own baseball games, when he was 8 years old.
"He missed a ball. He was playing first base, and they lost the game because of the error," Rob remembers. "And he fell down and started crying. And I went over and said, 'We don't do that. What we do is we compete as hard as we can compete.' And after that, it never happened again. He totally understood. It's a game. We play hard. But when it's done, it's done."
The approach has served Bortles well, even if it hasn't always attracted a spotlight.
And if you think he's out of the shadows now, consider Duke. A Google image search for Bortles just weeks before the draft included 13 photos of his girlfriend -- out of the first 22 results. Ten of those 13 photos did not include Bortles.
Asked what comes up when you search for him, Bortles laughs and says, "I'm sure it's not me on there." Handed the phone to look at the results, Grant responds, "That sounds about right." Worton adds, "That's what I expected."
"I wouldn't have left a year early if I wanted to go in the second round," Bortles says. "I wouldn't have left a year early if I thought I was gonna go 25th. I left early to be the No. 1 pick, no doubt about it. That's a goal. And on May 8, when I'm in New York City, I can sit there and say I've turned over every stone on this journey of mine, I've done all I can to be the first pick."
If his path getting here is any guide, that wouldn't do much to knock him off course.