April 14, 2012
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By John Denton, Knights Insider
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Wanting to see how his sophomore quarterback would react in pressure situations, UCF head coach George O'Leary threw a little bit of everything at Blake Bortles on Saturday in the UCF Spring Game presented by PNC Bank.
And the good news for the Knights is that other than a fluke of a play where the ball slipped out of his hands for a scoop-and-score fumble, Bortles passed just about every test.
The 6-foot-4, 221-pound quarterback completed 27 of 45 passes - some of which came on long fourth down plays and others as the offense hurried through several no-huddle sequences - as UCF's first-string squad defeated the second-string Knights 20-7 at Bright House Networks Stadium.
Bortles, who showed flashes of greatness in relief last season, passed for 239 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. His numbers would have been even gaudier had the receivers, H-backs and tailbacks not 12 dropped passes. But all in all O'Leary was impressed with how his quarterback responded to being challenged.
``I really wanted to put Blake under some heat because I think that's going to happen pretty quick early in the season,'' said O'Leary, referring to tough early-season games at Ohio State and Akron and at home against Missouri and FIU. ``I wanted to see how he took it on. There still needs to be more of a sense of urgency, but I thought he handled it all really well.''
UCF fans mostly filled the home side of the stadium and looked on with great hope as UCF capped a successful spring. O'Leary has said repeatedly that the leadership from this senior class reminds him of the team from 2010, a squad that won a school-record 11 games, a conference title and a Liberty Bowl championship. The hope is that similar success lies ahead for the Knights after the 2011 season did not meet expectations.
``That chip on our shoulders is still there,'' said senior outside linebacker Jonathan Davis, who had nine tackles and two sacks on Saturday. ``And it will be there until we win a conference championship. With the season we had last year, we've got to go out and get that bad taste out of our mouths.''
Approximately 20 recruits and 70 former UCF lettermen were on hand to watch the game as well. UCF stars Kevin Smith, Brandon Marshall, Mike Sims-Walker and Leger Douzable watched the action from the sidelines.
All eyes were on Bortles this spring. Bortles impressed UCF's coaching staff last season by constantly keeping himself ready and producing in a big way in games against Southern Miss, East Carolina and UAB.
The native of nearby Oviedo worked hard this spring on becoming more vocal on the field and more authoritative in the huddle. His consistency was at times shaky in the spring, but he came through in a big way on Saturday with several big completions. He hit Quincy McDuffie for a 10-yard touchdown just before the half to put the first-string squad up 17-0, and he skillfully guided the team down the field several times in the second half in no-huddle situations.
``Getting those reps last season in live-game situations helped me so much. The game is so much different than practice, so getting the game reps helps your poise and control,'' Bortles said. ``The whole second half, running the two-minute drill I wasn't expecting that. We've been practicing high-tempo offense and coach has shortened the play clock. Going through all of those situations this spring really help because you never know when you'll see them in games. There might be a fourth-and-17 in a game where you need a first down, so that should help.''
Having two talented running backs the caliber of Latavius Murray and Storm Johnson should help take some of the pressure off of Bortles in the UCF offense. Splitting carries on the first string, Murray ran for 67 yards in just nine carries, while Johnson had 33 yards and a two-yard rushing TD.
``Me and `Tay, we push each other on and off the field,'' said Johnson, a transfer from the University of Miami who had to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. ``We push each other in the weight room and on the field and it's just going to make us better next season.''
Added Murray, who had the fourth-best rushing day in UCF history to end last season: ``Storm is a great back and he does some things that defenses can't stop and I do some things that give defenses trouble too. And when we're in there together they aren't going to know what to expect from us.''
Bortles also has a host of talented, young receivers to throw to in the offense to keep defenses guessing. Redshirt sophomore Josh Reese, who developed a strong bond with Bortles last season, had nine catches on Saturday for 64 yards. And Breshad Perriman, the biggest surprise of the spring because of his toughness and ability to make catches in traffic, snagged four balls for 64 yards.
``They're still not totally confident because they should be catching the ball and turning upfield,'' O'Leary said of the receivers. ``Some of them are still catching the ball and expecting the hit. We've got to get more (Yards After Catch) from those guys.''
Another of the best stories of the spring is cornerback A.J. Bouye, who is back on the field after tearing a ligament in his left knee last October against UAB.
Bouye was in a gold, noncontact jersey all of spring, but that didn't stop him from having a stellar game on Saturday. He had three tackles, two interceptions and a pass break-up - impressive numbers considering that he's back on the field just seven months after his injury and playing at roughly ``75 percent'' speed. Bouye is well aware that much is riding on his return since he is being looked to to replace field corner Josh Robinson, who opted for the NFL Draft and will likely be a high-round selection.
``It felt so good on those interceptions and this time I went down and didn't feel any pain,'' said Bouye, referring to getting injured following an interception in the UAB game on Oct. 20. ``I felt really good on my cuts, but I know I'll be sore. This summer is really big for me. I have to go hard and do extra work on my agility and speed drills. My trainers have promised me I will be 100 percent by the start of camp and that's what I'm hoping for.''
As for Bortles, he said it will be important for him to set a tone of for the offense this summer so that when the Knights open fall camp in August that they are hitting on all cylinders. He said he would welcome a potential return of Jeff Godfrey and the competition that Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert will provide and he's ready to do what it takes to become the leader of the offense.
O'Leary anointed Bortles as the leader of the offense following last season, and now the blossoming sophomore is ready to prove that he can become UCF's next standout quarterback.
``That meant a lot to me and it meant that I had his trust,'' said Bortles, referring to O'Leary's statement that the offense belonged to him. ``(O'Leary) and the coaching staff, they believe in me and think I can lead this team. As a player I have to take that and live up to it. I have to show them that they made the right decision.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.