During their time last season as true freshmen and again early this year as backups, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receiver J.J. Worton developed a dazzling chemistry that benefitted both players.
Now key contributors to UCF’s offense as redshirt freshmen, the bond between Bortles and Worton is paying huge dividends for the Knights’ offense.
UCF launched its comeback on Saturday night against Southern Miss after Bortles took over exclusively at quarterback and he immediately started feeding the ball to his favorite target. And when Bortles found Worton on a 25-yard touchdown pass on the final play of regulation, it allowed the Knights to dream of upsetting No. 22 Southern Miss.
The potential game-winning two-point pass was ultimately batted down, resulting in a 30-29 loss for UCF. But the vibe emerging from the game for the Knights was about the enormous promise for their young quarterback and wide receiver.
“J.J. just goes out there and keeps making big plays. And Blake really stepped up for the team and did a great job again,” UCF tailback Latavius Murray gushed.
UCF (4-6 overall and 2-4 in Conference USA play) heads into the final two games of the regular season with a decision to make at quarterback. Sophomore Jeff Godfrey was C-USA’s Freshman of the Year last season and has had his moments this season. But it’s Bortles who has had the hot hand of late and could very well be the starter on Saturday when the Knights face East Carolina (4-6 and 3-3) in Greenville, N.C.
UCF head coach George O’Leary is expected to announce his starter later in the week, but the likelihood is that both quarterbacks will play against the Pirates. UCF must win its two remaining games – the finale is at home against UTEP – to get to six wins and qualify for a bowl game.
O’Leary alternated Godfrey and Bortles at quarterback in the first half against Southern Miss, but stuck exclusively with Bortles in the second half. O’Leary felt that the 6-foot-5 Bortles gave the Knights a better chance at working the ball down the field against the Golden Eagles defense.
“I told (offensive coordinator) Charlie (Taaffe) that I thought (Bortles) gave us the best chance because he could see more of the field because they had some good sized linemen up there. We’re going to play both of them (in the future). Bortles did a good job, and now we just have to grow from this game and get the next two.”
The growth of Worton this season has been undeniable. A preferred walk-on from Homestead last season, Worton shined on the scout team while catching balls from Bortles. He impressed coaches during spring drills and early this season, earning him a steady role on the team despite his redshirt freshman and walk-on status.
Worton had a stellar game at SMU earlier in the season, catching five passes for 32 yards and his first career touchdown. Against Tulsa, he had 87 yards, another touchdown catch and a key 25-yarder late in the game that put the Knights in scoring position.
And on Saturday against Southern Miss, the 6-foot-2, 193-pound Worton established himself as UCF’s go-to receiver. He had catches for 9, 4, 4 and 4 yards as the Bortles-led offense worked its way down the field. And facing a fourth-and-two play with two seconds remaining, Worton went high into the air to haul in a high, 25-yard strike from Bortles to draw UCF to within one point of the lead.
Said O’Leary: “That was a great catch. Those kids (Bortles and Worton) played their hearts out and I have nothing but great praise for them.”
Despite starting the season as a reserve, Worton now leads UCF in receptions (36), receiving yards (452) and touchdowns catches (three). And in his eight games, Bortles is completing a whopping 70.4 percent of his passes and his 150.5 efficiency rating would be second in Conference USA if he had enough pass attempts to qualify.
Clearly, the future is now with UCF’s two redshirt freshmen.