Blake Bortles arrived at UCF as a virtual unknown quarterback with modest expectations. Running back Storm Johnson was a transfer looking for a new start. Both are heading to the NFL after leading the Knights to the most successful campaign in program history.
Calling it "a lifelong dream and a lifelong goal," Bortles announced Monday that he will enter the NFL Draft after leading the Knights to a 12-1 record as a junior, capped by last week’s 52-42 upset victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, the first BCS bowl game in school history. Bortles passed for 301 yards and ran for 93 more while accounting for four touchdowns in the victory.
The native of nearby Oviedo had just three offers to play quarterback at an FBS school — from UCF, Colorado State and Western Kentucky — when he came out of high school. Now Bortles is being projected in several mock drafts as going earlier in the first round than Daunte Culpepper did when the Minnesota Vikings chose him 11th overall in 1999.
While Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville is regarded as the top quarterback available and probably the No. 1 pick when the draft is held May 8, Bortles is not far behind. Some experts have either Bortles or 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M as the second-best quarterback on the board.
It was Bortles and the Knights who handed Bridgewater and the Cardinals their only loss of the season on Oct. 18. Trailing 28-7 in the third quarter on the road, UCF rallied for a 38-35 victory with Bortles throwing for 250 yards and two scores.
Bortles, who had a 22-5 record as the Knights’ starting quarterback since 2011, filed paperwork with the NFL’s draft advisory committee to receive a grade before making his announcement. He said he told his decision Sunday night to UCF coach George O’Leary.
"He worked at the game," O’Leary said. "Nothing comes easy at that position. But he worked extremely hard at being who he is — hours and hours and hours of film and meetings and everything to know what he knows."
"I just couldn’t be more happy and proud and grateful for coach O’Leary giving me that opportunity," Bortles said. "I really found a home at UCF."
Knights running back Johnson also declared himself eligible for the Draft. Johnson, who played two seasons at UCF after transferring from Miami, rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first year as a starter.
"It’s been a dream of mine probably since I first touched a football at six years old," Johnson said.
"Both have been a major positive for this program since they’ve been in it," O’Leary said. "I’m sorry to see them go, but I’m happy for them."
Not everyone is sold on Bortles’ pro prospects. Bucky Brooks wrote on NFL.com last month that Bortles is "a good, not great, college player" and "I don’t see a transcendent star that will significantly change the fortunes of a dismal franchise."
Brooks was most critical about the footwork of Bortles, referring to it as "shoddy," and raised skepticism about the quality of the competition the Knights faced. But he also said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Bortles has the athleticism and ability to throw on the move that should enable him to play in any NFL offensive system.
Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar had a higher opinion, calling him "a bit of a developmental project" but adding "he’s got all the raw tools to become a great NFL quarterback." Farrar said there are elements of Bortles’ game reminiscent of Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins and Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, while Brooks compared him to Nick Foles, a third-round pick in 2012 by the Philadelphia Eagles who took them to the playoffs this season.
O’Leary said eight teams graded Bortles and 11 teams graded Johnson. He also poked fun at how wrong his initial evaluation of Bortles was when he saw him before his senior year in high school.
"I’ll tell you what a great evaluator I was: I thought he’d be a great tight end," he said.
Bortles was unclear about if or when he would work with a quarterback coach in anticipation of the NFL’s annual scouting combine and the pro day on the UCF campus.
"I’ll go and train wherever I decide to and really work on improving my game and get ready as I can possibly be for the next step," he said.
With his departure, UCF has only three quarterbacks on scholarship.
"I wish every quarterback that’s here the best of luck," Bortles said. "I told them that if they ever need anything, I’m a phone call away and would be more than happy to help in whatever way I could."