ORLANDO, Fla. — At the start of the 2013 season, few outside of Orlando knew much about Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles.
Bortles has lost his anonymity.
After leading the 10th-ranked Knights to the best season in program history, a 12-1 campaign capped by a 52-42 win over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, Bortles could provide another stunning first in the 34-year history of the University of Central Florida football program: In early May, Bortles could be the top overall pick in the NFL draft.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility for the Oviedo, Fla., native, who opted to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the professional ranks. Bortles is one of the hottest names in draft circles, shooting up projection charts during the season thanks to his numerous clutch performances and NFL-prototype size.
The highest-drafted player in UCF history is quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was selected No. 11 overall in 1999.
While the hot trend from the scouting world seems to be pulling the reins back on Bortles’ draft hype, a quick glance at teams selecting players early in the draft shows he may very well be a top-five pick.
Of the top five teams, four likely rank quarterback as their top need going into the draft: Houston Texans (No. 1), Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 3), Cleveland Browns (No. 4) and Oakland Raiders (No. 5).
Many have noted there is a strong connection between Houston’s staff and UCF coach George O’Leary.
Former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was recently hired as the Texans’ head coach. O’Brien rose from graduate assistant to offensive coordinator under O’Leary at Georgia Tech from 1995-2001. The two coaches remain close, and connections between the staffs could give Houston a much greater picture of Bortles as a prospect and a person.
O’Brien also got a first-hand look at Bortles when the Nittany Lions faced UCF earlier this season. Bortles was a big reason the Knights earned a 34-31 win at Penn State. He was 20-of-27 passing for 288 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
O’Brien was very complimentary of the quarterback both before and after the game.
“Anytime you have a quarterback like (Bortles), who is accurate, has a strong arm, is big and can stand in the pocket and can run, it is a difficult challenge,” O’Brien said in the postgame press conference. “He played a great game tonight and all the credit to him. I think he is a heck of a player. I didn’t get a chance to meet him or say hello to him, but I think he is a heck of a player.”
Listed at 6-foot-4, 230-pounds, Bortles name has been bounced around draft projections ranging from the top quarterback available to an over-hyped prospect with a lot of fundamental flaws.
While Peter King of Sports Illustrated said some NFL teams have Bortles atop their draft boards and ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have lauded the UCF quarterback, other recent scouting reports have been more critical of the UCF junior.
“Right now, I would take (Teddy) Bridgewater, (Johnny) Manziel, (A.J.) McCarron, Derek Carr, David Fales and Brett Smith before I would take Bortles,” wrote Greg Gabriel, a former director of college scouting for the Chicago Bears. “I feel all of them are better passers and better prepared to play in the NFL.”
The NFL combine will be a huge opportunity for Bortles, giving him a chance to display his strengths and dispel some concerns about his weaknesses. If he falters during the biggest job interview of his life, Bortles’ draft stock surely would tumble.
Come May, the odds are in Bortles’ favor to emerge on the more optimistic side of any early reports. That his name could be called first overall is a stunning rise for a player given little consideration before this season.