Two nights before the most important workout of his life, as various NFL decision-makers traveled to the Central Florida pro day in late March, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles spent a fair amount of his spare time calming the nerves of his agent, Ryan Tollner.
It wasn't the actual pro day that made Tollner anxious about how his client would fare. It was the schedule for the day before it that caused so much consternation. From 8:30 in the morning until 10 at night, Bortles would have meetings with four teams to sell himself as a future franchise quarterback.
As much as Tollner understood the value in putting Bortles before as many eyes as possible, he also saw the danger in such an overwhelming day. So he kept asking Bortles if he really wanted to do this. He assured his client that there were other ways to approach these interviews, even if it meant more visits to the teams' facilities. "Ryan was freaking out, but I actually thought it would be fun," Bortles said. "I have no problem talking football, and meeting all those teams was a unique opportunity. To me, it wasn't hard at all. It was enjoyable."
It's impossible to know everything that the Texans, Vikings, Raiders and Jaguars gleaned from their time with Bortles that day. They each had about two hours with him before he took an hour-long break to prepare for the next session. What is quite likely is that they left knowing that Bortles is more than a statuesque signal-caller with a big arm and a bright mind. He's also the kind of quarterback every NFL team covets: one who sees pressure as an opportunity to prove that he belongs at the highest level of his sport.
When trying to assess Bortles' meteoric rise -- in one year he has gone from obscurity to possibly being the top overall pick -- it's best to start with that poise. It's something that inevitably enters into every conversation about his strengths, and it's likely to be his calling card if his career goes the way many anticipate. Said Bortles' father, Rob, "Blake always has been kind of cool. He's never been cocky or arrogant, but he's always been pretty confident. He's never felt like he couldn't get things done."
"I thrive on being poised," Bortles said. "Everybody talked about how stressful the combine was going to be, how I was going to be throwing to receivers I didn't know and things like that. I approached it with the attitude that I'm a football player. I throw the football. I want to show people what I can do."
The 6-foot-5, 232-pound Bortles has accomplished exactly that thus far. From throwing at the combine to mastering his pro day to impressing teams in personal workouts, he's sustained the momentum that has swelled over the past eight months. His biggest supporters see a young man who can be the second coming of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, a sturdy, strong-armed gunslinger with a knack for extending plays and thriving in crucial moments. As proof, Bortles was 7-1 last season in games decided by 10 points or fewer.
'He has all the measurables'
When asked about Bortles earlier this offseason, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said, "You watch the tape and he intrigues you, and then you see that he got better during the offseason and that intrigues you. You feel he is a guy that is moving up the scale."
"He has all the measurables," said Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine. "If you look at him, if you said draw me an NFL quarterback, that's probably who you'd draw. I think the thing that's impressive about him is his ability in crunch time in a lot of tight games, a lot of come-from-behind wins. You can see he's confident [and] can make all the throws."
Bortles also brings the proper mental approach to the game. Even though he's on the verge of earning millions, he's not destined to allow success to get to his head. Bortles has driven a 2005 Ford F-150 pickup truck since he arrived at UCF. When his father asked him what he wanted to do for himself with his eventual riches, Bortles told him that he only wanted a new F-150.
When agents were flying into Bortles' hometown of Oviedo, Fla., and overwhelming his family with constant requests to discuss representation, Blake didn't let the unannounced visits irritate him in the same way they did his father. The same was true when ESPN camera crews followed Bortles around for the show "Draft Academy." Rob's heart raced as he tried to find a comfort zone with cameras in his home, but he marveled at how gracefully his oldest son handled his fame.
What Rob knew was that it wasn't always this easy for the spotlight to find his boy. While NFL decision-makers rave about Bortles today, it was only four years ago that Blake had to fight just to be considered a legitimate college prospect. At that time, he was a long way from being the 3-year-old boy who once promised his parents that he would be an NFL player one day. The only thing Blake wanted then was a chance to show most people what they'd been missing.
"The goal my entire life was to get drafted," Bortles said. "I never cared if I was No. 1 overall or Mr. Irrelevant. I just wanted to hear my name called on that day, so it's surreal to be where I am now. I never want to forget about being thankful."
The irony of Bortles' current success is that he didn't start off wanting to be a quarterback. When his father coached him in Pop Warner, Blake always wanted to play linebacker or fullback. Those were the positions where he could throw his body around and prove his toughness.
Even when Bortles reached Oviedo High School, he still favored the blue-collar roles until fate intervened during his freshman year. A broken collarbone sidelined him during the first part of that season and all the starting spots largely had been filled once he returned. The only job the freshman coaches had a hard time finding talent for was quarterback. So they asked Bortles to give it a shot.
Bortles soon learned that playing quarterback wasn't solely about taking snaps, handing off and throwing passes. It also could be a lot of fun if he learned how to bend the position to his own personality. His coaches gave him the first opportunity to do that by chucking the wing-T offense that they ran on varsity and allowing Bortles to use his arms and legs to make plays. After that, he took it from there.
Bortles became so good that the coaches once again altered the offense when he joined the varsity team. He also became so enamored with playing quarterback that he would bring a football to baseball practice in the spring. While his teammates honed their swings during batting practice, Bortles tossed passes to his buddies in the outfield. In his mind, there was no doubting he would be a big-time quarterback one day.
That was the idea until Bortles finished his senior season at Oviedo. Despite setting Seminole County records with 5,576 passing yards and 53 touchdowns, Bortles was a relatively obscure commodity in recruiting circles. Tulane and Purdue offered him scholarships, but both programs envisioned him as a tight end. Central Florida, just down the road in Orlando, thought more of his skills and told him he could play quarterback in its system.
It was humbling for a kid who had pinned his first scholarship offer (from UCF) on the wall of his bedroom, fully believing that he would fill it with more flattering letters. He wound up with four total and decided that Central Florida coach George O'Leary had the best ideas for his future. "He actually told me that if playing quarterback didn't work out, he would move me to tight end, too," Bortles said. "From day one, my mindset was to repay him for that shot."
Just as with the recruiting process, Bortles had to fight to win his respect within the UCF program. While he redshirted as a freshman in 2010, another first-year player -- true freshman quarterback Jeff Godfrey -- became an instant sensation. Godfrey went 8-2 as a starter, passed for 2,159 yards, rushed for another 566 yards and left most people with the impression that Bortles would spend a lot of time standing on the sideline. The only person who didn't think that was Bortles.
Instead of pouting about Godfrey's success, Bortles set out to improve his own skills. "We had a lot of conversations when he wasn't playing about how he could get some opportunities," said Rob Bortles. "And he decided to put everything he had into film study and preparation. He really got into the mindset that he was going to be the first guy in and the last guy out every day. He knew he was only going to get six or seven snaps in practice, so he had to be lights-out."
"I had to battle," Blake added. "I really had to come in and prove myself. But I think being able to compete and knowing that nothing was being given to me helped me out a lot."
Bortles worked hard enough that he appeared in 10 games as a redshirt freshman. He won the job outright as a sophomore -- forcing Godfrey to move to wide receiver -- and displayed even more promise, throwing for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns and earning MVP honors in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Still, it wasn't until this past season that Bortles launched himself into the conversation as a potential top draft pick.
As fans and media fawned over more publicized quarterbacks, such as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Bortles turned heads with his own accomplishments. He led UCF to a 34-31 win at Penn State by throwing for 288 yards and three scores. He engineered a dramatic 38-35 win on the road against Bridgewater and Louisville three games later, as the Knights overcame a 28-7 third-quarter deficit. By the time UCF finished the season with a 52-42 win over sixth-ranked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, the Knights were 12-1, champions of the newly formed American Athletic Conference and fully in awe of a quarterback who had blossomed right before their eyes.
Bortles finished his college career with a 22-5 record in games he started, but it was the little things that also impressed those who watched him closely. "You'd see Blake come off the field in some situations, and George O'Leary would really be laying into him," said Tollner, a former college quarterback at Cal. "Quarterbacks are supposed to take the blame, but some guys aren't wired for that. Blake could stand and take it. As a player over the last two years, he answered the challenge every time."
Said UCF offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe, "Blake's growth, maturity and sense of responsibility have impressed me the most. He has learned all that goes into being a quarterback at a high level. Now that he's ready to take the next step, I think he's made significant growth from being an 18-year-old, 'aw, shucks' kid to really developing a sense of ownership and responsibility in the offense and accountability that comes with being a major college quarterback."
The only downside for Bortles was agonizing over this decision to turn pro. As excited as he was to pursue his dream in the NFL, he also loved college life. Bortles knew his team had surprised people with its 2013 success. The upcoming season was supposed to be another year of high expectations, and Bortles didn't want to disappoint his teammates.
After UCF won the Fiesta Bowl, Bortles spent the next four days mulling his decision. During that time, he played a round of golf with his father, who encouraged his son to go to his off-campus house, find a secluded place and think through things. A day later, Blake sent a photo of his feet perched on a chair with nobody else in the room to Rob, just to let his father know the advice had resonated. That following Monday, Bortles told O'Leary he was going to the NFL.
It's been nearly four months since that decision, and Bortles hasn't looked back. He's especially impressed scouts by the work he's done improving his footwork and throwing mechanics. "If he comes into our system [in Jacksonville], or if he goes to Houston or Minnesota, each one of those teams will ask him to do different things, and what he's put on tape and what he did on his pro day showed he can take coaching and can get better," Bradley said. "That's good. That's a great trait to have."
Bortles feels so good about what's been happening in his life that he isn't even worried about the possibility of a dreaded draft day slide when he's in New York for the event. He knows the stories of Aaron Rodgers and Brady Quinn sitting in the green room for hours, waiting to hear their names called after being hailed as top picks. Just as on the field, Bortles doesn't seem to mind such pressure.
"I could really care less about all that," Bortles said. "Whenever they call my name, I know I'm going to have a blast."