7:25 PM EDT, September 24, 2013
Blake Bortles was labeled as "that other" quarterback from Oviedo.
You know, the one nobody wanted.
The college scouts flocked to Seminole County to recruit Hagerty High's Jeff Driskel, whom , according to most of the national analysts, was the No. 1-ranked high school quarterback in the country.
Meanwhile, Bortles, from nearby Oviedo High, recalls looking up the online recruiting rankings, shaking his head and saying to himself, "Damn, man, I ain't even on the list."
Now, four years later, UCF's Bortles is one of the top quarterbacks in the country, the fifth-rated passer in the land and a legitimate NFL prospect who is preparing for arguably the biggest game in school history Saturday against SEC powerhouse South Carolina.
Driskel, the University of Florida's much-maligned quarterback, is scheduled to have season-ending surgery Wednesday to repair a broken leg suffered early in last week's game against Tennessee. His future as Florida's starting quarterback could be in jeopardy.
Sadly, Driskel was injured Saturday in the worst way imaginable — tackled after a throwing an interception that Tennessee returned for a touchdown. This came in the aftermath of a nightmarish upset loss to Miami two weeks ago during which Driskel committed three costly turnovers.
Bortles, feeling Driskel's pain, contacted his former high school rival on Sunday just to tell him to keep fighting. "It's very unfortunate what happened to Jeff," Bortles says. "It was a tough break. I just wanted to tell Jeff I'm sorry about what happened, keep his head up and get back as soon as possible."
In an in-direct, round-about way, Driskel is at least partly responsible for Bortles becoming the player he has become; a quarterback whom NFL draft analyst Matt Miller says is a better pro prospect than two-time national champion A.J. McCarron of Alabama and Georgia's SEC record-breaking passer Aaron Murray. Bortles says Driskel deserved all the recruiting attention he got in high school, but he admits he was driven to prove the scouting services wrong.
Driskel was ranked No. 1 in the country as a high school quarterback by Scout.com, which described the future UF quarterback as a player with "excellent size, an NFL arm [and] can throw the ball through a wall and run by most linemen."
Bortles, a year older than Driskel, was not even listed among the 137 quarterbacks rated by Scout.com when he was a senior at Oviedo High.
"I definitely had a chip on shoulder," Bortles says. "All these guys I was competing with were getting all this hype, and I thought I was just as good as they were. Clearly, I wasn't in the eyes of those who mattered."
Bortles is about the nine millionth example of why the recruiting rankings are ridiculous. Even though, at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, he has a prototype NFL body and bazooka arm, UCF was one of the few schools that recruited him as a quarterback. Everybody else wanted him to be a tight end.
UCF coach George O'Leary has never been one to pay much attention to how many stars a recruit has attached to his name. O'Leary will tell you football is a developmental game and that what happens after a player signs with a college is just as important — if not more so — than his credentials before he signs with the college.
Case in point is the NFL draft, where nearly as many players who were two- and three-star recruits are taken in the first round as those who were four- and five-star recruits. UCF middle linebacker Terrance Plummer says when he watches an NFL game on TV and they go through the starting lineups, he's always uplifted to see how many players are from "Southern Mississippi, East Carolina and Western Michigan."
"I bet a lot of people are ticked off that they missed out on a 6-foot-5 quarterback who can sling that thing," UCF offensive tackle Chris Martin says of the big-time recruiters who whiffed on Bortles. "Blake is a gem; a diamond in the rough. . . . It just goes to show rankings aren't everything."
It also goes to show why Bortles, Martin and their UCF teammates are so fired up about Saturday's game against South Carolina. In their minds, this game is class warfare. The Gamecocks, led by defensive superstar Jadeveon Clowney — the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country as a high school senior — represent the acclaimed and celebrated. UCF's roster represents the neglected and overlooked.
"I didn't have what they wanted, apparently," Bortles says of the big-time schools. ". . . A lot of players on this team are in the same boat I was. This is a great opportunity for the guys who were overlooked by the bigger schools and who play, as I do, with a chip on their shoulder."
Who can blame them?
And who can blame him?
After all, that "other" quarterback from Oviedo is now the toast of the town.
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