More times than he can remember, Blake Bortles has cued up the DVD from last November to remember just why it is that he pours nearly every waking minute and every thought into trying to become a better quarterback for UCF.
Within a matter of minutes late last season, Bortles experienced both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that a quarterback can feel when the Knights faced nationally ranked Southern Miss.
With UCF trailing by seven points and facing a fourth-and-six with two seconds to play, Bortles fired a 25-yard strike that fellow redshirt freshman J.J. Worton hauled in despite being swarmed by three defensive backs.
But rather than kicking the tying extra point, UCF head coach George O’Leary opted to ride the momentum of Bortles, who had completed seven consecutive passes to lead the Knights down the field for the touchdown. But when Bortles’ two-point pass was hurried because of the rush and fell incomplete, the moment of jubilation over the touchdown was replaced by the disappointment of defeat.
Bortles has used the memory of that moment as motivation throughout the offseason.
“Me and J.J. have watched that together numerous times and just listening to the audio of them saying, `Worton comes down with it!’ is such a great feeling,” said Bortles, breaking into a smile. “And then every time we talk about the two-point play, it’s always the infamous `16-pivot’ that didn’t get converted for the win. That one still stings.”
The sting of that moment has driven Bortles throughout the offseason and caused him to set up optional workouts with his receivers and to become a better leader in the locker room. The 6-foot-4, 221-pound quarterback took control of the offense late last season and was at the controls throughout spring practice, evolving into the leader of the offense. He has worked hard – on and off the field – to become the player that UCF can count on.
“This spring getting better in the locker room was the biggest thing I had to work on,” Bortles said. “Coach O’Leary emphasized to me that I need to be the guy in the locker room, being the guy that everybody can look to and being that coach on the field. The leadership role is something that I really strived to become better at in the spring.”
He certainly looked like a leader on the field in Saturday’s Spring Game, passing for 239 yards and a touchdown. He completed 27 of 45 passes, numbers that would have been even more impressive had UCF’s receivers not dropped 12 passes.
In addition to his progress on the field, UCF senior tailback Latavius Murray has noticed a major difference in the way that Bortles commands the huddle. Starting his third year in the program, Bortles is more comfortable becoming the voice of the offense.
“Blake is a lot more confident and he’s really trying to take that leader role now,” Murray said. “Like coach said, when Blake is in the huddle it’s his huddle. You can just see that he’s a lot more comfortable. He knows he needs to be our leader in the huddle and on the field and I see that in him.”
Bortles, a native of nearby Oviedo, impressed UCF’s coaching staff last season with his readiness off the bench. He filled in nicely in relief in games against BYU, SMU and UAB, throwing two touchdown passes and regularly moving the offense. And he showed the coaching staff that he could be a dependable playmaker in the clutch with the performance at Southern Miss.
That night, Bortles hit on 24 of 34 passes for 248 yards and two touchdown passes. His TD toss to Ronnie Weaver put UCF up 23-22 with eight minutes to play. After Southern Miss retook the lead, UCF’s hopes seem to die when Bortles’ screen pass was intercepted by a Southern Miss defensive linemen. But he didn’t blink at the setback, leading the team down the field and converting to Worton on the final play of regulation.
Being in a back-up role most of last season taught Bortles some important lessons about preparation and production.
“When you are a two you have to prepare like you are a one,” Bortles said of his former role on the second string. “Like coach always said, `You are a (sprained) ankle away from being the guy.’ I tried to always stay in my playbook and Jeff (Godfrey) and I were always staying together on the calls and the audibles. When Jeff went out I could keep the offense moving the way that he did.”
As for Godfrey, O’Leary has said that he might welcome him back to the program after the two meet this week. Godfrey led the Knights to a school-record 11 wins, a Conference USA title and a Liberty Bowl win in 2010. He started all 12 games last season, but left the program. Now, he’s expressed a desire to return to the Knights.
Whereas that might upset some quarterbacks, Bortles said he would welcome Godfrey back onto the team. Bortles said he would have no problem being in a quarterback competition for the starting job, and his commitment to UCF out of high school should be proof of that.
“It’s like the same situation when I committed. I committed and then (Godfrey) committed and everybody wondered if I was going to de-commit,” Bortles recalled. “I was like, `He’s a great athlete and a great player and I can’t wait for the competition.’
“I hope (Godfrey) comes back,” Bortles said. “The only thing he does is make us better. It doesn’t matter if he plays quarterback or whatever he wants, but I look forward to him coming back. We’re friends and I know he’s a great athlete and I know he’ll make the team a lot better.”