Blake Bortles arrived at UCF as a virtual unknown quarterback with modest expectations. Running back Storm Johnson was a transfer looking for a new start.
Both are heading to the NFL after leading to the Knights to the most successful campaign in program history.
The players announced Monday that they will skip their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft.
“After a lot of deliberations and talking with my parents, I’ve decided to try and pursue my goal to play in the NFL and capture my lifelong dream,” Bortles said. “I just couldn’t be more proud to say I played football at UCF, and it was the best four years of my life.”
In his second year as the Knights’ starter, Bortles helped UCF bounce back from a narrow early season loss to South Carolina to win end the season on a nine-game winning streak and upset win over heavily favored Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
Bortles was a constant throughout UCF’s run to its first BCS bowl, helping the Knights survive in seven games decided by seven or few points. It included a 21-point comeback in an upset win over Louisville. The 12-1 record was a program best.
He finished 2013 passing for 3,581 yards and 25 touchdowns. The season followed a sophomore campaign in which he had 25 touchdowns and threw for more 3,059 yards.
Both Bortles and Johnson sought ratings from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. Several analysts project Bortles as one of the top three quarterbacks available in the draft.
O’Leary said they were both pleased with how they were graded by the advisory board and by the feedback the coached got through inquiries from team executives he knows.
Both still have until Jan. 15 to pull their name from consideration.
Daunte Culpepper is UCF’s highest-ever draft pick, having been taken 11th overall in 1999 by the Minnesota Vikings.
“I just gave them the positives and negatives from my standpoint — that’s my job,” O’Leary said. “You’re gonna be prejudiced as a coach, obviously. I gave them what I thought I learned...They had to make their decisions based on what I told them.”
Not heavily recruited coming out of nearby Oviedo High School, Bortles redshirted his freshman year in 2010 and was Jeff Godfrey’s backup as a redshirt freshman in 2011.
UCF offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe said that he saw Bortles’ potential early on.
“I feel comfortable saying he’s the best one I’ve ever had the chance to coach,” Taaffe said. “I’ve had a few in the NFL, I still have one or two playing. But I think Blake’s the best and I think he’s got the best upside of anybody...in terms of still growing and still developing.”
QB HUNDLEY RETURNING
Brett Hundley decided the NFL can wait until he accomplishes a few more feats for UCLA.
Hundley will return for his junior season, the UCLA quarterback announced Monday at a campus news conference packed with teammates and friends.
After just two seasons as the Bruins’ prolific starter, Hundley likely would have been a high pick in the upcoming draft, perhaps even the first quarterback taken. He waited a few days after UCLA’s Sun Bowl victory before deciding he wants another shot at the Rose Bowl, a national title or a Heisman Trophy with the up-and-coming Bruins.
“We’re going to do big things this year, so let’s have some fun and do it,” Hundley said.
Hundley has been the UCLA starter since his first game under coach Jim Mora, running for a 72-yard score on his first collegiate snap in 2012. He has won 19 games and established himself as one of the nation’s top young quarterbacks with his arm and his legs, but Hundley believes he can do much more with a loaded, experienced roster behind him this fall.
Hundley spoke to former UCLA teammates Johnathan Franklin and Datone Jones about their NFL experiences while making his decision, and they encouraged him to take his time with the Bruins.
“Johnathan Franklin, he told me that there are things in life you don’t want to rush,” Hundley said of his former tailback, now with the Green Bay Packers. “That sort of stuck. Knowing that you’re only in college once, and to play this game and to be part of this kind of brotherhood that we’ve built here and understand we’re on the verge of something great ... is something that I really want to be a part of.”
Hundley, an economics major, also indicated that a fourth year of school will allow him to get his degree from UCLA.
Hundley already has done plenty for UCLA, and the school intends to promote him as a star in 2014. After his announcement, the athletic department’s website was plastered with photos and a Heisman campaign for the fleet-footed quarterback.
UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo passed up his senior season to enter the draft, but the rest of Hundley’s injury-plagued line will return with experience. The Bruins frequently started three freshmen on the line this season due to injuries.
“What’s about to take place here and how close we are to being great at UCLA is something that I didn’t want to leave yet,” Hundley said. “From what we’ve built in two years, we have the potential to turn that into something really great.”
TOP RECEIVER DECLARES
Clemson’s record-setting wide receiver Sammy Watkins says he’s headed to the NFL.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior from Fort Myers, Fla., confirmed reports that he’s leaving school, saying Monday that he is entering May’s NFL draft.
“After much prayerful consideration, I have decided to take the next step in pursuing my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL,” Watkins said in a statement released by Clemson.
Watkins has set 23 school records in three seasons. He finished his career as the most outstanding player of the Orange Bowl. He caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns in No. 12 Clemson’s 40-35 win over seventh-ranked Ohio State.
Watkins is considered the top receiver prospect available and a top-15 selection in the NFL draft.
Watkins leaves as the school’s all-time leader with 240 receptions, 3,391 receiving yards and 15 games with 100 or more yards. His 27 career touchdowns tied the Clemson mark of former teammate DeAndre Hopkins, who left after his junior season last year and became a first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans.
Watkins was an instant sensation from the moment he walked on campus in 2011, helping the Tigers to an 8-0 start and their first Atlantic Coast Conference title in two decades. He was an AP All-American that season with 82 catches, 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Things took a turn as a sophomore due to injuries and a two-game suspension to start the season after Watkins’ offseason drug arrest. Watkins pledged to rededicate himself to football and the Tigers and that showed this past fall with single-season school marks of 101 catches and 1,464 yards.
Clemson will also be without receiver Martavis Bryant and cornerback Baushad Breeland, both who announced they’d given up their final seasons for the NFL draft.
FLORIDA LB GOING PRO
Florida linebacker Ronald Powell is leaving school early and entering the NFL draft.
Powell, a 6-foot-4, 244-pound junior from Moreno Valley, Calif., was the nation’s top high school recruit in 2010. He missed the entire 2012 season after twice tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
He returned to play in 11 games last season, leading the team with four sacks. He finished his college career with 84 tackles and 11 sacks.
Coach Will Muschamp says “it’s been well documented the hardships he has had to overcome and he has always kept a positive attitude.”
Powell is the third Florida player to leave school early, joining cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who could have returned for another season, also turned pro.
TWO IRISH DEFENDERS DECLARE
Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt is leaving school early and entering the NFL draft.
Notre Dame director of football media relations Michael Bertsch said Tuitt informed coach Brian Kelly of his decision. Tuitt is the second Irish defensive lineman to declare for the NFL draft, joining nose guard Louis Nix III.
Both have been projected as possible first-round picks by some, although the 6-foot-6, 312-pound Tuitt was projected as a second-round pick by the NFL draft advisory board.
Tuitt, from Monroe, Ga., got off to a slow start in 2013 after offseason surgery for a sports hernia, but had 49 tackles and 7.5 sacks and finishes his career with 126 tackles and 21.5 sacks, leaving him tied for third on Notre Dame’s sack list.
OLE MISS WR LEAVING
Mississippi receiver Donte Moncrief has decided to skip his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
The school sent out a statement Saturday night confirming Moncrief’s decision. The 6-foot-3, 226-pounder from Raleigh, Miss., had 59 catches for 938 yards and six touchdowns this season.
Moncrief’s career numbers of 156 catches, 2,371 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns all rank third in school history.
Moncrief said in the statement that he had an “awesome experience” with the Rebels, but “I am ready to pursue my dream of playing in the NFL.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said “while we had hoped he might stay another year, we are excited about his future, and we look forward to seeing another Rebel shine on Sundays.”
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