Who’s Blake Bortles?
If you asked that question to most college football fans before the start of the 2013 season, few would have likely replied, “Oh, he’s the quarterback at UCF.” Instead, most would have responded with a look of bewilderment and a shoulder shrug.
Unknown, unsung and unnoticed, the unheralded former 3-star recruit from Oviedo, Florida entered his junior year with little fanfare and no real publicity to speak of. For Bortles, there were no appearances on preseason preview magazine covers, no special feature segments on ESPN and no Heisman hype campaigns. There was only possibility and opportunity. The possibility to prove himself to scouts with his play and the opportunity to make a name for himself on a national stage, playing in a more prominent conference.
It’s an opportunity the second-year starter certainly seized and made the most of. After spending the entire offseason being overshadowed by fellow American Athletic Conference counterpart — Louisville’s celebrated star signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater — it was Bortles who ended up truly taking the league by storm in 2013, putting together a spectacular breakout season.
After leading the Knights to a surprising 34-31 victory at Penn State and following it up with a near upset over No. 12-ranked South Carolina, Bortles initially started to raise a few eyebrows and build up steam near the end of September. It wasn’t until a Friday night showdown with Bridgewater and Louisville, though, that the strong-armed signal-caller really began to emerge as a hot coveted commodity.
Beating Bridgewater in a nationally televised conference clash was the catalyst that set in motion the rise to prominence. But it was Bortles’ defining final collegiate victory in the Fiesta Bowl against double-digit favorite Baylor in front of a primetime audience which took his stock to an entirely different level.
That memorable performance has helped the Knight signal-caller become a prized media darling. Every year, it seems like the media tends to latch onto and pump up a certain quarterback prospect once the offseason arrives, and this year, it seems like Bortles has become the new chosen one. Following the sensational showing in the Fiesta Bowl, the mock draft crowd has already begun pumping him up to be a future top-10 pick. But the question is, do scouts agree?
Some notable former NFL evaluators such as NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks and former Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel haven’t quite jumped on the bandwagon just yet.
Brooks has said that he doesn’t believe Bortles is an elite quarterback prospect.
“Looking at Bortles on tape, I see a good player with a lot of upside, but I don’t see a transcendent star that will significantly change the fortunes of a dismal franchise. Now, that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective starter for a team, but I believe it will take him some time to develop into a solid player as a pro.”
Gabriel, who now writes for National Football Post, has gone on record recently saying that Bortles is “far from being ready to come into the NFL and play.”
“There is too much inconsistency in his overall game. I question if he can become an eventual starter and win in the NFL. That doesn’t mean he won’t start for whoever drafts him, but as we all have seen the last five to six years, there have been many quarterbacks drafted with high hopes who haven’t lived up to expectations.”
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan recently reported that there are still a wide disparity of opinions on Bortles at this point in the process.
Teams all over the place on QB Blake Bortles. Process of evaluating him going forward crucial to where he ends up.
— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) January 8, 2014
The athletic 6’4’’, 230-pound junior finished the year with one of the most impressive stat lines of any quarterback in college football: 68 percent completion percentage, a 9.4 yards per pass attempt average, a 25-9 touchdown-interception ratio and a 163 passer rating. Numbers don’t truly paint the real picture of Bortles’ 2013 campaign, though. The defining moments like the come-from-behind upset win at Louisville or the spotlight performance against Big 12 champion Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl are what will leave a lasting impression in the minds of scouts during the thick of the offseason film evaluation process.
There’s evidence of the coveted “clutch factor” and there are obvious skills to work with, but there are also questions about the level of competition he was succeeding against, which leads to questions about his true readiness for the pro level.
Earning the respect of the self-appointed gurus and the talking heads on television is one thing. Earning the trust of true veteran professional personnel evaluators — the ones who are actually making the all-important decisions regarding where a player will actually be drafted — is quite another.
Bortles has generated the big buzz that was lacking back in the preseason. Now it’s up to the once unnoticed afterthought to capitalize on the attention.
Unfortunately, this year, there’s no shortage of competition at the position, and in the 2014 draft class as a whole. After dealing with a rather ho-hum starless quarterback crop in last year’s draft, there are plenty of intriguing prospects at the position this year who are worth getting excited about such as Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Derek Carr, David Fales, Brett Smith, AJ McCarron, Tajh Boyd, Jimmy Garoppolo and Zach Mettenberger. Plus, with a record number of underclassmen declarations, the 2014 draft class is shaping up to be one of the deepest groups of prospects in the last decade. It’s one that will feature plenty of elite prospects such as Jadeveon Clowney, Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Khalil Mack, Sammy Watkins and Anthony Barr all jockeying for position in the top end of the first round.
It’s too early to tell where the AAC Offensive Player of the Year fits into the equation just yet, but one thing’s for sure, Bortles is surely going to have plenty of supporters as well as plenty of skeptics and critics.
There’s no questioning the skills are there to become a successful quarterback at the next level. That’s evident. Still, scouts are a fickle bunch, and questioning a prospect’s potential is their speciality. Big-name quarterbacks, especially, receive that scrutiny tenfold.
The No. 1 pick is a possibility. But then again, at this point, so is the second round. Just remember that at this time last year, many in the media were projecting Geno Smith to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and that definitely didn’t pan out as planned.
Bortles has held his own destiny in his hands for all this time. Now, it’s time for him to step up his game and prove to scouts during offseason workouts that he does indeed have what it takes to be the franchise quarterback that many in the media are now forecasting him to be.