Blake Bortles was expected to be good in 2013, but he wasn't supposed to be lead-UCF-to-the-Fiesta-Bowl good or potential-top-overall-draft-pick good. He was just supposed to be good.
Until he got better.
In searching for who the next Bortles might be, one might be tempted to look only at small-school prospects, but it wasn't Bortles' school or conference that defined what he did last year. It was his rapid ascent from relative no-name and NFL afterthought to household name and NFL goldmine. Playing at UCF had little to do with his story arc.
In that regard, the man most likely to be next year's Bortles is not a small-school quarterback from a non-BCS league. His team has played in and won a Fiesta Bowl and now plies its trade in the Pac-12. If he performs well next season, he will be on the radar early. He won't be able to sneak up on people the way Bortles did toward the end of last season.
Still, in terms of physical tools, proper coaching and a solid core of weapons around him, no player is more set up to be the Bortles of 2014 than Utah quarterback Travis Wilson.
The physical similarities between Wilson and Bortles are obvious. Bortles is a little bit thicker, but also a little bit shorter at 6'4'' to Wilson's 6'7''. Both players are also surprisingly mobile for their respective sizes, Wilson having rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns in one game against Oregon State last season.
Unlike Bortles, however, Wilson has yet to put all those tools together. At least not consistently. He's shown the ability to play well in spurts, but too often in 2013—even before his season-ending concussion against Arizona State—Wilson struggled with accuracy and and poor decision-making, which led to inconsistent results and even a six-interception game in the near-upset against UCLA.
Even with those struggles and against a much tougher schedule, Wilson's 2013 results weren't too far off from Bortles' in 2012. They were noticeably worse in some places, but comparable in others.
Bortles, for example, finished 2012 ranked No. 61 in the country in passing yards per game. Wilson finished 2013 ranked No. 62.
Those numbers should have been much better, too. Wilson started the season hot before ending it with three horrific performances, but some of that might be attributed to a finger injury sustained against Arizona in Week 8.
It's no coincidence where the turning point in his season occurred:
|Travis Wilson Game-by-Game Performance in 2013|
|Opponent||Result||CMP%||YDS||TD - INT||Rating|
|vs. Utah State||W 30-26||60.7||302||2 - 0||174.88|
|vs. Weber State||W 70-7||73.7||264||3 - 0||242.50|
|vs. Oregon State||L 48-51||57.6||279||2 - 3||130.42|
|at BYU||W 20-13||68.6||273||2 - 0||152.95|
|vs. UCLA||L 27-34||50.0||288||2 - 6||92.71|
|vs. Stanford||W 27-21||67.6||234||2 - 1||138.99|
|at Arizona||L 24-35||33.3||15||1 - 2||39.56|
|at USC||L 3-19||35.7||51||0 - 2||37.74|
|vs. Arizona State||L 19-20||28.6||121||2 - 2||89.35|
|at Oregon||L 21-44||DNP||DNP||DNP||DNP|
|at Washington State||L 37-49||DNP||DNP||DNP||DNP|
|vs. Colorado||W 24-17||DNP||DNP||DNP||DNP|
After starting the season 4-2 and earning some respect on a national scale—respect that included a few votes in the AP poll after the Stanford game—things began to spiral out of control with Wilson's injury issues.
Personally and for the team as a whole, having Wilson banged up and eventually shut down for the season made winning a difficult chore.
"There's something to be said about not losing your quarterback," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham on a November 2013 teleconference call. "That's what [the five-game losing streak] was all about...We went into a slide at that point and were never able to recover."
But now things are starting to look up.
According to the team's official Twitter account, doctors have cleared Wilson for non-contact drills in the spring, which is normal protocol for someone who plays quarterback. He'll be reevaluated for post-concussion symptoms in July.
If he clears that hurdle—a hurdle which should obviously not be taken lightly—and is eligible to practice in full during the fall, Wilson will do so with the benefit of having worked with new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen in the spring. That is something that cannot be taken for granted.
Christensen came up as an offensive line coach, but has made a habit of grooming quality quarterbacks for the past decade-plus. Recently fired as the head coach at Wyoming, his most recent protege is Brett Smith, who was recruited as a 2-star quarterback and now stands a strong chance of being selected in the NFL draft—despite being snubbed from attending the Scouting Combine.
In his previous gig as the offensive coordinator at Missouri, Christensen groomed Brad Smith and Chase Daniel into high-volume college passers who won many football games and have now enjoyed long NFL careers. Even if Smith's has been at receiver, Christensen got him to the league.
Perhaps most relevant, though, Christensen recruited and for one season coached Blaine Gabbert, a player who, despite being a colossal bust so far in the NFL, played well in college and has a similar physical profile to Wilson. Both are tall, lanky projects who can make every throw in the book, but need some help with accuracy and timing and footwork and reads.
Christensen will not be confused by coaching such a unique specimen, will recognize the slate of marble that needs to be etched into a masterpiece. He has turned lesser players into stars.
The weapons should be in place too. Wilson is not as lucky as Bortles, who returned his four leading receivers from 2012 in 2013, but he does get back top target Dres Anderson and leading rusher Bubba Poole. The Utes must replace 6'3'' receiver Sean Fitzgerald and tight end Jake Murphy, but improvement from Wilson will make that transition easier on the whole cast of potential replacements.
If he's medically cleared in July, his finger feels healthy and Christensen has the effect I project on his development—smoothing out the jagged edges of his game—Wilson's improvement could do even more than just that.
It could flip this whole season (and his career) on its head.
Wilson is not a safe bet. From the injury to the interception woes, this prediction has potential to blow up in my face.
In taking a shot in the dark to predict the next Bortles, though, any player who's a "safe" bet would be disqualified by definition. Any prediction without risk would be predicting the wrong thing.
Sometimes it was ugly for Wilson last season, sure. But sometimes it was the opposite. And in this particular hypothetical, it's more important to look at the highs than the lows, the ceiling than the basement, the "potential" than the potential for catastrophe.
Wilson started nine games last season for a team with mediocre talent and still posted wins against Utah State (pre-Chuckie Keeton injury), BYU and Stanford. With Poole and Anderson back around him, he will not have to spend time searching for a new leading rusher or receiver. He can focus solely on working with Christensen, on making himself better.
There's a chance he can do those things again.
It's crazy to predict that Wilson will make a Bortles-like ascent from the depths of NFL draft boards to the summit, but it's not so crazy to suggest the possibility.
At this same time last year, after all, anyone who predicted Bortles would be a legitimate threat—if not the betting favorite—to be drafted No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans would have seemed out of touch with reality.
How smart would that person sound now?
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter @BLeighDAT