One of the big stories surrounding the National Football League playoffs, which will culminate with the Super Bowl Sunday night, was the success of the Jacksonville Jaguars in almost advancing to the big game.
Although the Jags fell short of that goal by narrowly losing to New England on Jan. 21, the play of their defense and quarterback Blake Bortles impressed many — including a North Surry High School graduate who coached Bortles in high school.
“I’ll always make the time to talk about good players and good kids,” Wes Allen began a telephone conversation Wednesday during a break in his work day in Florida, where the former local resident has lived for about 15 years.
“And Blake certainly fits that mold.”
During his time in the Sunshine State, Allen — who graduated from North Surry in 1997 before playing football at Appalachian State University — has served as head coach at Oviedo High School, where Bortles played quarterback. Bortles enjoyed a stellar career there before graduating in 2010 and starring at the University of Central Florida before being selected by the Jaguars in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Jacksonville’s won-loss record was 11-37 during Bortles’ first three seasons. But this season the team went 10-6 before dispatching Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs and then going on the road the next week to defeat the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers.
After that, the Jags lost the AFC Championship game at New England 24-20, after leading most of the way and seeing Pats QB Tom Brady engineer a last-minute, come-from-behind victory.
And all of this was closely watched by Bortles’ old coach back in Florida, who still keeps in touch with his star signal-caller from their Oviedo High days.
“Honestly, I’m very proud of him and happy more than anything,” said Allen, the son of Surry County residents Robert and Kathy Allen. “I think any kid that grows up wanting to play football, his dream is to play in the NFL and Blake is getting to play out his childhood dream.”
Allen witnessed the transformation of Bortles from a defensive player to a quarterback in high school, who would be playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl had a stellar effort from Brady and New England not transpired.
“That’s impressive and I’m happy for him — I’ve seen the time and the effort he’s put in to become the quarterback he is,” Allen said of his former player’s recent success.
When Wes Allen first came into contact with Blake Bortles, around 2004, the latter was on a much different trajectory.
“He was actually in our youth football program here in Oviedo, and he was a running back and a linebacker,” recalled Allen, who was breaking into the Florida high school coaching ranks after serving as a long snapper at App State.
Allen relocated from Mount Airy to Florida in 2003. “I moved down here and didn’t know a soul.”
The former Greyhounds player subsequently became an assistant coach at Oviedo, a large school (about 3,000 students) in Seminole County in the greater Orlando area.
During Bortles’ freshman and sophomore seasons there, Allen was offensive line coach, before being elevated to head coach for Bortles’ junior and senior campaigns.
As a young underclassman, Bortles was playing at cornerback on defense, but the Oviedo coaching staff saw a quarterback in the making.
“His body — his height, his weight, the way he could run,” Allen said of the physical dimensions that led to this consideration for Bortles, who is now listed at 6-5 and 236 pounds.
“When we saw him throwing and running and the all-around athlete he was, we called him in and said, ‘you’re going to be a quarterback,”’ Allen remembers. “He looked the part — he had all the intangibles.”
Bortles took this in stride, according to his former coach. “Being the kid he was, he never questioned it, he just went on doing his thing to help the team.”
This paid dividends during Bortles’ sophomore season when the Oviedo Lions’ starting QB was injured and Bortles — who had played on defense to that point — was inserted as his replacement.
“And once I became head coach, we kind of tailored our offense around him,” Allen said.
Oviedo had been fielding a wing-T offense, which stresses power running and misdirection.
“Playing at North Surry, I grew up in the wing-T,” Allen said. “And when I became head coach, we went to more of a spread-type offense,” a passing-oriented scheme that made better use of Bortles’ talents.
This was rewarded with a district title in 2009, when Bortles was a senior at Oviedo.
Pro career impresses
Scholarship offers rolled in, and Bortles elected to play at the University of Central Florida located near his home.
He led UCF to a 22-5 record as a starter in the 2012-2013 seasons and the inaugural championship of the American Athletic Conference in the latter season. It was capped off with an appearance in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, where Bortles led Central Florida to a 52-42 upset of fifth-ranked Baylor, propelling his selection as the third overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Up until the latter stages of the present NFL season as the Jaguars built a winning record thanks largely to their defense, Bortles was disrespected by most of the so-called expert analysts. They tagged him with a label considered distasteful in pro football: a “game manager” — someone expected to hand off the ball, throw short passes and make no mistakes that cause the team to lose.
“Blake has always done a good job of blocking out negativity,” Allen said of such criticism.
“The only thing he cares about is what his coaches and the guys in the locker room think,” he added. “When you go back and look at the entire body of work during the season, he did exactly what the coaches asked him to do.”
When the playoffs rolled around, Bortles’ running talents helped the Jags defeat Buffalo 10-3, which included rushing for a game-high 88 yards.
Bortles had a breakout passing game the next week against the Steelers, completing 14 of 26 attempts for the upset victory. He also ran for 35 yards.
“Blake beat them with his feet,” Allen said of his mobility in running the Jags’ offense that continually came through in a seesaw battle.
“Every time they needed it, he had an answer,” Bortles’ former coach continued. “That’s not a game manager, in my opinion.”
That carried over into Jacksonville’s last game against the Patriots in a clash for the right to play in the Super Bowl.
Bortles completed 23 of 36 passes for nearly 300 yards and the Jaguars led 20-10 at the start of the fourth quarter before succumbing to Brady’s heroics.
‘Still just Blake’
Wes Allen stepped down from coaching one year ago, after nine seasons at the helm of Oviedo High, a won-lost record of 63-36 and five district titles.
He entered private business, working in sales for a company that installs turf fields.
“The opportunity that’s been presented to me is just too good to pass up for my family and for myself,” Allen told the Orlando Sentinel in a January 2017 interview.
He and his wife have two children, a son, Austin, 4, and a daughter, Jordan, born only last month.
“I took this job to help my family out,” explained Allen, who hopes to one day return to coaching.
In the meantime, he has maintained a close relationship with his star quarterback from Oviedo High.
“We usually text after the game — we’ll text back and forth a little bit,” Allen said of what occurs during the Jaguars’ season. “During the off weeks, he’ll swing by the house and say ‘hello.’”
Allen said he is happy for Bortles and his family, praising his parents for the job they did in raising Blake and his brother Colby, a baseball player in the Detroit Tigers organization.
“People ask me, ‘how has he changed?’” Allen said of the Jaguars QB.
“Well, he hasn’t changed — he’s still just Blake.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.