When it comes to thriving in the shadows, Blake Bortles has plenty of experience.
UCF's junior quarterback is moving into a conference where nine of the 10 schools return their starter from last year, headlined by Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, thought by many as a top Heisman Trophy candidate.
Bortles' numbers from last year, his first as a full-time starter, speak for themselves: 3,059 passing yards, 25 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions. He went the last six games without a pick, entering 2013 with a run of 174 passes without an interception, matching the longest active streak in Division I-A football.
"The biggest thing with Blake is that every game last year, he got better," said coach George O'Leary, whose Knights debut tonight against Akron. "Obviously, I think his poise and maturity in the huddle is getting better as he gets more confidence."
Bortles went to Oviedo High, just a few miles from UCF's campus. But his efforts — 51 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in his last two seasons there — were overshadowed by crosstown rival Hagerty, which had a dual-threat star in Jeff Driskel, a national high school player of the year who is now Florida's starter as a junior.
Bortles' steady progression last year ended in St. Petersburg at the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, where he was 22-for-33 for 272 yards and three touchdowns in UCF's 38-17 drubbing of a Ball State team that beat USF earlier in the season.
O'Leary said he sees an even stronger awareness from Bortles, whose experience last season has helped him process opposing defenses with greater precision.
"When you put a young quarterback back there, even if they're talented athletes, those DBs or linebackers look like spiders running all over the place, and until they slow down, you're really not a good quarterback," he said. "I think that's where Blake has improved, his fieldmanship. … The biggest thing is just his maturity as far as reading coverage."
This could be a season of validation for UCF, which seeks to continue its Conference USA success in a tougher new league, the American Athletic Conference. The Knights look to be the best of four C-USA imports, but they'll have to hold their own against six teams held over from the old Big East, potentially establishing themselves among the schools to beat when Louisville and Rutgers leave the conference after this season.
None of UCF's 10 wins last season were against teams that finished in the top 50 of the final Sagarin ratings; the Knights went 0-4 against top-50 teams. Then again, only three of this year's opponents — Penn State, South Carolina and Louisville — finished in that same top 50, suggesting UCF could earn a similar record in the American. Bortles' success went hand-in-hand with UCF's last year; the Knights scored at least 31 points in every win.
There are breakthrough opportunities for the Knights, who go to Penn State on Sept. 14. Later in the season, UCF has an opportunity to knock off USF, which travels to Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando on Nov. 29.
UCF's roster is loaded with experienced juniors such as Bortles. O'Leary says with only eight seniors, he has the second-smallest senior class in the country, trumped only by South Carolina's five. The No. 6 Gamecocks come to Orlando on Sept. 28, another opportunity for the Knights to step out of the shadows.
"We have a young club, but a young club that's played a lot of football," O'Leary said.