While stressing that Jeff Godfrey is still firmly in place as UCF’s starting quarterback, head coach George O’Leary said Monday that promising redshirt freshman Blake Bortles will see playing time on Thursday against UAB.
O’Leary’s decision was based off UCF’s need to get more big plays in the passing game and Bortles’ continued success in relief of Godfrey. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound Bortles came on late in the fourth quarter of UCF’s 38-17 loss to SMU last Saturday and completed a 48-yard pass to A.J. Guyton and a two-yard touchdown strike to J.J. Worton.
UCF passed for 349 yards against SMU – 231 from Godfrey and 118 from Bortles – for its most passing yards since 2003. But the Knights have just three passing touchdowns all season and have had trouble of late converting scoring opportunities in the red zone.
“Jeff is out there and we’re getting first downs … I’m not a big stat guy, but I think the key to the offense is putting the ball in the end zone,” O’Leary said. “We moved the ball (against SMU) for a lot of yards, but we didn’t put points on the board. We’ve got to be able to come up with some big plays. We put Bortles in and he came up with some long passes right away. I was pleased with the way he’s going out there and taking advantage of what (defenses) are doing. We’ve just got to get Jeff throwing the ball down the field and on time and not late into double coverage.”
UCF (3-3 overall and 1-1 in Conference USA play) is dealing with a short week and forced to play a second game in 10 days because of a schedule change. The Knights will be heavy favorites in Birmingham, Ala., against UAB (0-6, 0-3) and hope to use this game to get their offense back on track.
A point of emphasis this week for the Knights has been finding ways to get more “chunk plays” that set up more scoring opportunities and swing momentum. UCF’s longest rush so far was a 50-yard dash by Brynn Harvey to open the Marshall game, while the longest pass was a 58-yard pass from Godfrey to Guyton in the fourth quarter against BYU. UCF has three 50-yard offensive plays, five 40-yard plays, three 30-yard plays and 17 20-yard gainers. Godfrey’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Josh Reese last Saturday was the offense’s longest scoring play of the season.
“Anytime in a game you can get a big play it just kills the other side of the ball and it’s momentum for us. That’s something that we lack right now from last year, and this year we haven’t gotten them to happen,” said senior tight end Adam Nissley, who has 15 catches for 204 yards. “We need some huge plays because both sides of the ball just feed off the momentum from moments like that.”
Godfrey, who guided UCF to its finest season in school history as a true freshman, has struggled at times to build much chemistry with a group of young, inexperienced wide receivers. He’s completing 68.1 percent of his passes, but has averaged just 11.6 yards a completion while throwing only two touchdowns. By comparison, he averaged 13.5 yards a completion last season and tossed 13 TDs while winning C-USA’s Freshman of the Year award.
Said O’Leary: “It’s still Jeff’s football team, but if things aren’t going right I don’t have a problem putting Bortles in the game. Jeff is moving the team, but we’ve just got to get the ball in the end zone. We’re doing the right things, but we’ve hurt ourselves with some penalties to stall some drives.”
Bortles, a native of nearby Oviedo, has shined this season when given a chance to play in relief of Godfrey. Following a high school career in which he set Seminole County records for passing yards (5,576) and TD passes (53), Bortles gained valuable experience last season while redshirting. He seized the backup quarterback job in training camp and has played well so far this season.
He hit on eight of 10 passes for 144 yards against Charleston Southern, and then authored his most impressive performance in the second half against BYU. With Godfrey out injured, Bortles completed four of five passes for 46 yards, including a 17-yard strike on a third-and-15 play. And soon after entering Saturday’s game against SMU, Bortles lofted a perfect spiral down the sidelines to Guyton for a 48-yard strike. It was UCF’s third longest passing play of the season.
“I like the way Bortles is playing because he’s going out and takes over and is getting it done from a production standpoint,” O’Leary said. “He has that demeanor about himself that nothing really flusters him. And he has a good feel in coverage and where the ball should be delivered. He can do all of the things that we need to get done. It’s good to have someone that we can put in and get things done like that.”