Coach Wes Allen will never forget the first time Blake Bortles seized control of a football game and willed his team to victory the way a future NFL quarterback would.
It was a Thursday night during Bortles' junior season at Oviedo High School in Central Florida, and the Lions were playing the rival Winter Springs Bears. Behind by six points, Oviedo marched inside Winter Springs' 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, and Bortles ran to the sideline and pleaded with Allen to put the game in his hands.
"We had a play called 85 jet roll, where he rolled out to his right and he had a curl-flat concept," Allen recalled in a recent phone interview. "He goes, 'Call 85 roll and just let me run it in.' He said, 'I can run the corner over and we can score and win the ballgame."'
Allen obliged. Bortles rolled out and rushed for a 9-yard touchdown to lift Oviedo to a 35-34 upset victory. He powered his way past Al-Terek McBurse, who went on to play running back for Purdue University and is now with Florida A&M University, to reach the end zone.
"He really took our team and put it on his back and said, 'I'm the guy. Let me go do this,"' said Allen, who has been Oviedo's coach since 2008. "Then that carried over into his senior year."
Then it carried over again to the University of Central Florida. Bortles won the starting quarterback job two years ago and led the Knights to the best back-to-back seasons in school history. Last season as a junior, he completed 259-of-382 passes (67.8 percent) for 3,581 yards and 25 touchdowns with nine interceptions, helping UCF defeat Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl and finish with a record of 12-1.
A poster boy for meteoric rises, Bortles is now expected to become a top-10 pick Thursday in the NFL Draft. He's also among the prospects the quarterback-needy Browns could target with the fourth overall selection.
The 6-foot-5, 232-pound Bortles visited the Browns and conducted a private workout for them last month, according to ESPN. Unlike two other big-name quarterbacks in this year's class, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Bortles possesses prototypical size.
"I think being able to do things in the pocket (separates me from other prospects)," Bortles said in late February at the NFL Scouting Combine. "Being 6-5, 230, being able to throw off platform, extend plays with my feet, stuff of that sort, able to handle a lot of offense, able to make throws, being trustworthy, I think are all things that are key in being the top quarterback prospect."
He certainly passes the eye test.
"He has all the measurables," Browns coach Mike Pettine said of Bortles in late March at the NFL owners meetings. "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, can make all the throws. I think he's a better athlete than some people give him credit for."
The primary knock on Bortles, though, is that he might not be ready to step in right away as a starter in the NFL.
"Bortles, to me, needed another year (to develop)," ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said during a recent conference call. "But he's got talent. He's got size. He's got tremendous pocket awareness. He's tough. He needs to improve ball placement, and his arm strength you hope gets better once he's in the NFL. It has with other quarterbacks."
At the combine, Bortles said he has "no problem" with people saying he should sit his first year in the NFL because he needs coaching. He spent this offseason training with Chicago Bears backup quarterback Jordan Palmer at EXOS in Carlsbad, Calif.
"He's told me, 'Coach, I know I need to work. I feel like every quarterback in the league has something they have to work on,"' said Allen, who still talks to Bortles on a regular basis. "He's not the kind of kid who just sits back and says, 'I've got it all. I've arrived. Here we go.' He's going to continue to try to get better at everything that he does."
Last week during minicamp, Pettine made it clear he would prefer to sit a rookie quarterback behind incumbent starter Brian Hoyer than immediately throw whomever the Browns draft to the wolves. It sounds like a good idea, provided Hoyer can successfully rebound from the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his right knee last October. But if the Browns pick a quarterback fourth overall, sitting him simply would not fall in line with the way business has been conducted in the NFL the past six years.
A study of the past 10 drafts reveals that none of the 12 quarterbacks picked in the first round from 2004-07 started right away as a rookie. However, the trend changed in 2008. Since then, 11-of-16 quarterbacks taken in the first round began their rookie seasons as starters, and all seven quarterbacks who became top-five picks during that span started immediately.
No matter which role Bortles is asked to fill early in his NFL career, Allen has faith that he'll handle it well.
"Wherever he ends up, when he gets there, he's going to do everything in his power to make that franchise a better football team," Allen said. "If that means being the dude, he'll go be the dude. He'll be the one that sits in there all night and studies the film and learns the protections and gets with the linemen and gets with the receivers.
"If it's his role to come in and know, 'Hey, you're the guy, but you need to learn this stuff and learn to be a professional and do those things,' he'll do that 100 percent. Blake has a great personality, so people want to follow him, people want to be around him, people believe him, not because he's loud and boisterous, but because he puts in the work and people see that."
Bortles has had to grind at every level to prove himself.
After he was promoted to varsity as a sophomore at Oviedo, Bortles played defensive back for the first handful of games before he got a shot to play quarterback. He began excelling at the position once Allen changed the team's offense from the wing-T to a spread-option system.
Despite impressing college coaches at offseason camps, only two schools offered Bortles a scholarship as a quarterback: Central Florida and Western Kentucky, which made a late pitch. Colorado State, Purdue and Tulane also presented offers but wanted Bortles to play tight end.
"You could see the frustration in his face during the recruiting process between his junior and senior year when that takes place," Allen said. "There were times (when he would ask), 'Coach, what is it? What's going on?' (I would say), 'Blake, I don't know. To me, you've got everything that you could want.' He was kind of an unknown going into college."
That's why Central Florida redshirted Bortles in 2010 and played him behind Jeff Godfrey, who has since converted to wide receiver, the following season. Coaches from other schools were asking if Bortles would transfer, but he was determined to stay at UCF and start for the Knights. He won the job for the 2012 season and never looked back.
"He never let the pressure get to him when he was the second guy or the unknown," Allen said. "He didn't fold to it. He used it as motivation."
It's too early to know exactly what kind of situation Bortles will be thrust into once he's in the NFL. Regardless, Allen is convinced his former player has what it takes to thrive.
"I can't tell you how many coaches I've told, 'You want this guy on your football team. You want him leading your team. You want him in your locker room. You want him to be your quarterback,"' Allen said. "One school really listened, and I would say the same thing to NFL guys: 'You want him. He's got the 'it factor."'
(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
Visit the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) at www.ohio.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services