His passes fell incomplete. They beelined off his palm like a kamikaze pilot, flying across the green grass before sinking in it. They sailed through the bright stadium lights and into the dark sky before going over the receiver’s head. They blindly flew out of bounds and bounced hopelessly on the sideline.
But it didn’t matter, because UCF’s Blake Bortles had potential. The one word that all the personnel men love to use until they’ve fired for using it. Then they hate it, and they tell others not to do the same. Then they get another job in the league and use it again, betting on a potentially good player like Bortles.
He has the tools. He’s 6’4″ and has a fairly strong arm that’s at its best when he’s on the move. That’s when he can chuck the ball without going through the motion of swinging his hips around. All he has to do is square his hips for a split-second before throwing the ball. He can also elude pressure and unload the ball downfield from the pocket. He’s everything the NFL looks for in a young quarterback.
He still has a lot of learning to do, however. When he’s asked to take a deeper drop-back, his reads tend to start and stop on the first receiver like a broken Playstation analog stick. This frequently spells trouble and gives defenders a heads up on where the ball is going. It’s how he threw a game-sealing interception against South Carolina in his junior season.
When a quarterback reads the field, he has to be able to scan from one receiver to the next and keep linebackers shuffling and defensive backs backpedaling. Defenders are taught to open up their shoulders to the side the ball is going, so when a callous and cocky college quarterback gives them a leg up on where he’s going with the ball, it’s easy to run to it. All the defender has to do is jump to catch it.
The interception against South Carolina showed Bortles’ room for improvement in scanning the field and understanding the setting.
The clock reads 6:58 when Bortles catches the shotgun snap. It’s second-and-10 and UCF is down 28-18 in the fourth quarter. They’re at the opponent’s 27. Bortles takes three big steps and glances to the middle of the field before looking to his left. At the top of the drop he lands on the front of his left foot. His right foot staggers back, serving as a loaded gun that should drive the ball into a receiver’s hands.
He’s reading the left side where two receivers are running downfield. They’re outnumbered by the defense three to two until the underneath defenders stay in the flat. It’s Cover 2, and there’s one deep safety and a middle linebacker on the left side. The safety is running well outside the hash, working to cover the outside receiver. The middle linebacker is watching Bortles’ eyes to see where the ball could go.
There’s an opening. The slot receiver is running down the left hash between the underneath defender and the middle linebacker. Bortles is watching the hole in zone coverage widen. He’s graduated from reading to staring at this point. He finally sees the opening at the 15 yard line and raises his right shoulder. There’s pressure barreling in, but he’s unshaken. His feet are set and his arm is up. The ball flies off his palm as he’s hit and …
The middle linebacker is watching Bortles’ throwing shoulder and maneuvering outside. He’s abandoned the shuffle technique through the seam and is running to attack the ball.
Near the left hash, he positions himself like a tight end and jumps in front of the slot receiver, extending his arms to come down with the interception. Game over with 6:54 remaining on the clock (9:08).
Learning how to read is a process. Sometimes raw college quarterbacks don’t ever become polished pros. There are a plethora of examples, from the top to the bottom of the draft, who haven’t lived up to expectations. Any quarterback can be another example, even Bortles.
Another thing for Bortles to learn is how to rotate his hips when throwing the ball. It’s not always easy. Try it in your living room with a throwing motion, and you’ll quickly realize that not all hips are meant to be rotated.
In college, Bortles didn’t always rotate his hips when throwing, making it difficult for the ball to cut through the Florida humidity with velocity. It made his arm look weak and his passes inaccurate. He’s better than some of his passes show, but he has to rotate his hips to prove it.
Against Penn State in a thrilling win, Bortles made some brilliant throws and would have had more if not for a lack of velocity on them. One instance was a deep out that didn’t get deep enough.
With a 28-17 lead, Bortles awaited the snap on second-and-9. He was in shotgun and had two receivers to his left. The farthest receiver outside purposely stood well inside the numbers to create room to run an out route.
At his own 25, Bortles caught the snap and crossed his feet for a quick drop-back. He looked to the outside receiver while pressure came from the left tackle’s side. He didn’t budge, instead focusing on the throw.
His left foot stepped into the grass once more and opened his body up. His right elbow raised the ball behind his head. He then brought the ball across his body and fired the throw off his left foot. His upper body folded over, leaving his shoulders nearly parallel to the ground.
The ball sped across the field like a drone and abruptly nosedived across the 30.
From the 40 the receiver worked back to the throw to at least pick up meaningful yardage and set up a shorter third down. At the 39 he went down on his knees and bent his elbows, trying to trap the ball as it came in. He worked to gets his hands under it and does, but it’s still low (6:08).
It was low because he didn’t rotate his hips, forcing his shoulders down and affecting the trajectory of the throw. In the end, his accuracy was adversely affected as well.
These are things he needs to work on, but NFL teams are well aware of them. They’re expecting him to get better because they view him as a first-round pick who will develop into a first-rate quarterback. They think he has the tools to potentially win them a Super Bowl, even though he doesn’t have first-round tools.
But he has potential. The potential to get them fired one incompletion at a time.