Everything you need to know about the young man carrying the expectations for the UCF football team this season resides in his iPod.
Before every game, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles meditates on certain melodies that prepare his mind to engage in gridiron combat.
You Belong to Me. Mean. Eyes Open. Love Story. Enchanted and “Ours” is Bortles’ favorite.
“Taylor Swift on shuffle, every song,” Bortles said with no hint of a giggle in his voice. “As weird as it is, I like Taylor Swift. Have you ever heard that before?”
A country pop star known for teenage love songs serving as pregame football hype music? That might be a first.
His musical journey always ends with the punk rock football anthem “New Noise,” the song featured in the movie “Friday Night Lights.” The booming bass and cutting guitar riffs from the Swedish hardcore punk rock group are the last sounds he wants to hear before running into the tunnel.
These are the two sides of 20-year-old Bortles. One part of him is a laid-back country guy who likes peaceful fishing trips with his friends. The other side of him is a tenacious competitor who might sling a ping-pong paddle toward his father if he loses.
“He really struggles with losing,” Bortles’ dad, Rob, said with a chuckle. “And that drives him.”
The Knights are counting on Bortles’ disdain for losing this season. UCF finished a disappointing 5-7 2011 season before Bortles, a redshirt sophomore, was named as the starting quarterback.
College coaches weren’t exactly blowing up his phone before his senior year at Oviedo High School. A few coaches even asked him to consider competing as a tight end. He was a solid 235-pound, 6-foot-4 athlete.
Bortles kept an open mind even though his heart was set on becoming a college quarterback. After all, he was a running back and linebacker when he played Pop Warner football. He was a freshman in high school before he ever took his first snap as a quarterback. With no incumbent quarterbacks at Oviedo, coaches asked Bortles to take the job.
“They figured since I played baseball, I could throw obviously,” Bortles said. “So they were like `You gotta play quarterback.’ I wasn’t happy about it, either, but I was like, `Alright, I’ll do it.’”
It was a prudent choice. Bortles set new Seminole County career records for passing yards (5,576) and touchdowns (53) by the time he completed his high school career.
UCF coaches recognized his talent early on and wanted him to compete as a quarterback. Bortles committed early and never swayed.
“We’re big on the integrity side, so he stuck with his word because he got calls after that, about 10-12 different guys were asking [about him],” Rob Bortles said.
It took a little while before UCF coaches saw the passionate competitive streak Rob Bortles knew his son had.
There is a chart tracking ping pong wins and losses in the Bortles household. The score is about 20-1, with the younger Bortles taking the lead.
Neither Bortles men like to lose. Rob Bortles will claim ownership of that trait.
“He gets his focus and calmness from [his mom],” said Rob Bortles, who played linebacker for Georgia Southern from 1981-85. “I can be too emotional.”
But more emotion is exactly what offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe was looking for out of Bortles last spring. He initially thought Bortles was aloof and nonchalant.
“Last spring, I was like where is this guy coming from? He’s got all the talent but I don’t see the passion,” Taaffe said. “But as we got into the fall and last season and I got to know him better and realize this is who he is, I saw he’s driven internally and he doesn’t show it so much on the exterior.”
Taaffe was reminded of that inner spark the other day when he ran a ‘Wild Knight’ package that calls for receiver Rob Calabrese to switch roles with Bortles.
“I heard him say, ‘Now I get to go out and block somebody,’” Taaffe said. “So he’s a competitor.”
And one that just so happens to love Taylor Swift. A lot.
“I swear. I have a poster of her in my room,” Bortles said.
He claims he’s not alone in his adoration of Swift, citing running back Latavius Murray and punter Jamie Boyle as big fans too.
A little levity can’t hurt during a season already complicated by an NCAA postseason ban. UCF is appealing the penalty, which means the Knights still could play for a Conference USA championship. Players are eager to prove to themselves and to the fans just how good UCF can be as the school prepares for its transition to the Big East Conference in 2013.
And Bortles is just the man for the job.
“Nothing rattles Blake and that’s the best thing about him,” Calabrese said. “That’s what you need from a quarterback. When things go bad, we look to him and he’s calm. The guys really respect that.”