NFL scouts and coaches love the Senior Bowl because—unlike the pro combine, at which individual interview sessions max out at 15 minutes—there are no restrictions on how long they can speak with college prospects. That allows them to explore secondary areas of interest, even if that can sometimes be awkward for players. Take, for example, Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith.
At a session for this year's college all-star game, in January, the 6'3", 258-pound senior was asked to identify the best player he faced in 2013. How could he have known that after naming Blake Bortles, he would spend as much time talking about the Central Florida quarterback as he would about himself? The Eagles, Raiders, Browns, Texans, Cowboys.... "Everybody asked me about him," says Smith, whose Cardinals suffered their only loss against UCF, 38--35.
"He was one of the best quarterbacks I've ever faced," Smith told teams. "[Other QBs] had a hard time grasping our coverages and where our blitzes were coming from. But Blake knew everything and got the ball out quickly. He picked us apart. I thought we were a pretty good defense, but he got me wondering."
Quarterback-needy teams—particularly those at the top of the draft—are desperately trying to get a read on Bortles, who could be drafted anywhere from No. 1 to the tail end of the first round. The 6'4" 230-pounder has the size they desire but not the experience against elite competition. He played in the American Athletic Conference, which will never be mistaken for the SEC; and he wasn't highly recruited coming out of Oviedo (Fla.) High. Back then he was still growing into his body and lacked elite arm strength, a knock he has yet to emphatically disprove. He also played in an option-style offense as a sophomore.
Years later, at UCF, Bortles and his underrecruited teammates got a chance to exact revenge on the schools that had passed on them. "We go to Penn State, and you could see every single guy was fired up, saying, 'I'm going to make sure these dudes know they made a mistake,' " recalls Bortles, 21. "It was the same thing against South Carolina, Louisville, Baylor.... "
In that 34--31 win over Penn State, Bortles passed for 288 yards and three touchdowns. In beating Louisville—and blue-chip QB Teddy Bridgewater, another potential No. 1 pick on May 8—Bortles had 250 yards and two more scores. In a 52--42 Fiesta Bowl upset of Baylor and Heisman candidate Bryce Petty: 301 yards and three TDs, plus 93 rushing yards and another score. The Knights' only blemish was a 28--25 loss to No. 12 South Carolina, but Bortles's performance—nearly rallying from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit—left an impression on the man who was scheming to stop him.
"He did a great job reading coverages," says Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. "He was better than we thought; he moved well and was very accurate. A lot of people question his arm strength, but he's in the top two quarterbacks we played, the other being [Georgia's] Aaron Murray."
Before coming to Columbia in 2009, Ward spent a year on the Raiders' staff. He believes Bortles's size, intelligence and athleticism translate well to the pro level—as do his intangibles. "He understands the game," Ward says. "He's a leader."
BEYOND AVERAGING 3,320 yards, 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions over the past two years and leading UCF to its first BCS bowl game, Bortles is even-keeled on the field. So minimal is his interest in drama off the field that he doesn't correct a reporter who incorrectly says that the QB received a second-round draft grade from the NFL's advisory panel (he actually had a first-round grade); and he chuckles and shrugs at those who suggest that his girlfriend, bikini model Lindsey Duke, is more famous than he is. "I couldn't care less," he says.
Bortles's focus is set squarely on football. In January he was so excited for his first session at the EXOS training facility in Carlsbad, Calif., that he arrived 45 minutes early and sat on a curb until someone showed up to let him in. When Jordan Palmer, the facility's quarterbacks coach, told a group of players that they would have a major quiz the next day, Bortles again showed up 45 minutes early (along with the cleaning crew) and studied notes.
He was even early when it came to signing his letter of intent, committing before his senior season. Central Florida, Colorado State and Western Kentucky were the only schools willing to play him at quarterback (Purdue and Tulane wanted him as a tight end), but he also didn't want questions about his future distracting his team, which would finish that season 9--2 as Bortles passed for 2,211 yards and 27 TDs.
College offered a whole new set of challenges. Under the impression that he would be the top passer in the Knights' 2010 recruiting class, Bortles was surprised to see the team add QB Jeff Godfrey, Florida's 6A Player of the Year. Godfrey enrolled for the spring semester; by the time Bortles arrived in the summer, he was already behind. Following that first redshirt season, Bortles's father, Rob, asked him about transferring.
Godfrey had just led UCF to a program-record 11 wins and a bowl victory over Georgia, but Bortles was determined to honor his commitment. "I was like, Oh, man. What am I doing?" he says now of his decision to stay. "But how am I supposed to play in the NFL if I can't be the best quarterback on my own team? I said, If this is really what I want to do, I've got to make a lifestyle change."
To that point Bortles had done everything by the numbers: class, home, practice, home.... He focused on football only if it was on the schedule. But after getting some playing time as a redshirt freshman (Godfrey struggled as a sophomore, eventually moving to receiver) and earning the starting job entering his sophomore season, he amped up his dedication. In 2013, Bortles and his center, roommate Joey Grant, arrived at UCF's athletic complex every day at 7 a.m. and stayed until 8 p.m., breaking only for class, practice and trips to the bathroom. The QB pestered coaches and expanded his understanding of offensive and defensive concepts.
"It meant a lot to [teammates] to see him stay and fight for the job," says running back Latavius Murray, a college teammate who was drafted by the Raiders in 2013. "Nobody likes a quitter. The fact that he stuck it out, you're like, 'We're with you. We know what you went through; we've been there before.' "
The learning phase isn't over yet; Bortles knows that. While he has the size to absorb punishment in the pocket and the mobility to keep defenses off-balance, his footwork and throwing mechanics are rough, so those have been a focus at EXOS. There he relies on Palmer, whose time as a backup QB for the Bengals, Jaguars and Bears has taught him that not everyone learns in the same way. Palmer teaches by feel and focuses on lessons that can make players successful long-term rather than designing workouts around drills built just for performance at the scouting combine.
Bortles has yet to decide whether he'll throw at the combine on Feb. 23, or just at his pro day on March 19. Whichever it is, the impression he makes is sure to be as impactful on NFL personnel as it was on a Louisville defensive end. "It took me the first drive to realize he was that good," Smith says. "When we came to the sideline after [Bortles's first drive], we told coaches, 'We've got to do something. He knows exactly what we're doing.' He's special."
A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
SI's NFL blogger Chris Burke had South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney ranked No. 1 and Bortles No. 16 in his last draft Big Board. To see the latest, visit SI.com/NFL
ROMEO GUZMAN/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BORTLES ACTION)
ERIK ISAKSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BORTLES)
EASY BLAKE LOVIN' Alongside other draft hopefuls, Bortles is working on his footwork and mechanics at EXOS.
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CLOWNEY)