ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — 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.
Johnson transferred from Miami after his freshman season in 2010. After sitting out in 2011, he spent his first year at UCF in 2012 backing up Latavius Murray. He was then elevated to the starting job as a junior this season and finished with 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"This was a tough journey for me and I'm just super proud to have the support of coach (George) O'Leary and the coaching staff," Johnson said. "It was a hard decision, but I had to make the best decision for me."
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.
"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.
Godfrey initially flourished and was named Conference USA Freshman of the Year in 2010 in leading the Knights to an 11-3 finish and Liberty Bowl win over Georgia. But he struggled during a 5-7 season in 2011 that saw Bortles appear in 10 games.
Godfrey briefly left the team following that season and Bortles moved into the starting role.
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."
Bortles' departure leaves a huge hole the Knights' offense, though they lose only seven scholarship seniors from this year's roster.
Both quarterbacks behind Bortles on the Knights roster — Justin Holman and Pete DiNovo — are both freshmen. O'Leary said walk-on Tyler Harris will also be in the mix this spring.
Another freshman, William Stanback, is Johnson's likely replacement in the backfield in 2014.
Despite the losses, O'Leary said the future is bright at UCF.
"I think right now the university needs to understand while the iron is hot, they need to be firing it," he said. "From an athletic administration we need to be on top of things, and don't lose sight of what was just done and build on it for the next year."
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