ORLANDO, Fla. – Blake Bortles will go through a battery of exercises at his pro day here on Wednesday, with NFL personnel people staring at every motion.
Perhaps the best tell to his future, though, comes from the exercise he grew up doing in his living room.
The UCF quarterback and potential No. 1 pick in May's NFL draft had an arcade in his house in Oviedo, Fla., and not tucked away in the basement. There was a "Golden Tee" video game too, right there in the front, for everybody, including college recruiters, to see. Former UCF assistant Geoff Collins, one of the few coaches who liked him as a passer coming out of high school, will never forget being greeted by an automated basketball game when he made his visit.
"They were sitting right there in the living room," Collins said by phone Monday. "Pop-A-Shot, Ping-Pong. That's the way he was raised."
The strange thing about Bortles is that as obvious as his "measurables" are – he has a 6-foot-5 frame, a solid 232-pound build, and a powerful arm – his competitiveness has been undervalued for years. He looks apathetic, borderline bored. Even though he appears like the prototypical quarterback, his vibe is a lot more Joe Flacco than Brett Favre. Perhaps that's why he was considered more of a tight end in recruiting circles than a signal-caller.
"I threw with the best kids in my grade, threw just as well as they did," Bortles told the Orlando Sentinel in December. "I could do everything they could do. I wish I knew why nobody ever paid attention."
That even tripped up UCF offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe. "There were times as a freshman," Taaffe said by phone last week, "where I was thinking, 'Is this guy listening to me?' He's not a real demonstrative guy. His body language – he's a tough read."
Asked about his star quarterback being a potential No. 1 overall pick after being a college backup until 2012, Taaffe said, "It's hard to even fathom that right now."
Taaffe tried to stoke Bortles' fire after his redshirt freshman season, back when it was far from a sure bet that Bortles would eventually be UCF's starter. "I told him after freshman year, 'You've got all the tools to play at the next level,'" Taaffe recalled. "The size, arm strength, mobility. I was trying to use that as much for motivation as anything at the time. I was trying to get him to do the other part."
The "other part" turned out to be a secret strength for Bortles. He's almost a stealth leader, showing little of the visible charisma of Johnny Manziel but all of the results and more. He went 22-5 for a program that has little in the way of winning tradition, and his 2013 season was full of examples of late-game magic, as the Knights climbed from college football afterthought to a BCS bowl victory behind Bortles. They lost only one game all season, by three points at home to South Carolina.
If you look at the fourth quarter of each game, you see a clear pattern: Bortles was better when his team needed him most. UCF was down 28-10 to South Carolina and scored 15 points in the final quarter; the Knights were trailing 28-7 to Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville in the second half before coming back to win; they beat Temple on a Hail Mary from Bortles with 1:06 to go in the game; and they were behind in the fourth against South Florida. Most impressively, UCF scored 17 in the final quarter to beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, despite being 17-point underdogs. Granted, a good portion of the credit goes to running back Storm Johnson, but no one can say Bortles shrank in the moment. He had two second-half interceptions all season. Taaffe calls his quarterback "unflappable."
Part of Bortles' understated reputation is by design. He says little and brags less. "He passes on more glory than he takes on," Collins said. "It's never because of him." His model girlfriend, Lindsey Duke, gets a lot of the attention directed at him.
Yet he seeks out ways of competing and getting better, whether on the field or in the living room. He threw at the scouting combine even though he didn't have to – the only one of the top four quarterback prospects to do so – and the UCF staff expects him to gladly do everything asked of him and more at his pro day. "Every opportunity to compete, he'll show up," said Collins, who is now an assistant at Mississippi State. "He wants to get better, wants to improve, wants to get on it."
This quality might be better suited to the pros than to high school or college. The rah-rah air of many beloved quarterbacks doesn't go as far in the NFL. "His personality suits the position well," Taaffe said. "He's very much the same every day. He's a good barometer for the rest of the team. He's tough. He takes hits. He's going to try to get the most out of any play that he can."
None of this will be surprising to Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, who is known as a quarterbacks guru after spending time working with Tom Brady in New England and helping Penn State's Matt McGloin go from iffy college passer to an NFL starter last season. O'Brien watched Bortles beat his Penn State team on its own field last season.
"He was extremely complimentary," said Taaffe, who coached with O'Brien at Maryland. "He really liked him as a college quarterback." And it should be noted that O'Brien was on the staff of UCF coach George O'Leary for years at Georgia Tech. What O'Leary looks for in a quarterback probably isn't too much removed from what O'Brien wants.
Asked what an NFL coach should know about Bortles' personality, Taaffe said, "Emotional for him might not be emotional for anyone else. He can be funny, he enjoys hanging out with his friends; he just doesn't show a lot of outward emotion. Hopefully they'll get to see and understand: he is who his personality is. It may take a while to get to know him."
There is, however, a quick way to figure Bortles out.