For Florida, tonight's Friday Night Lights camp is one of the most important days of the recruiting calendar. But it might be more important for the Class of 2015 than the Class of 2014, might not yield any commitments from 2014 prospects, and will, this year, serve more as a waypoint for Florida's recruiting efforts than a big-tent event that puts Florida back on the map.
This wasn't the case with Will Muschamp's first two go-rounds with Friday Night Lights. In 2011, Florida received no commitments at or after Friday Night Lights, but got five-star prospects Stefon Diggs and Dante Fowler, Jr. to come to campus and ball out, and helped cement the event as one of the best camps/recruiting events of the summer schedule on the college landscape. This was important because of the alternative: If Muschamp couldn't keep the juices flowing at FNL, reputedly started by Urban Meyer as the first event of its kind, it was going to wrong-foot Florida for years to come. That Fowler ended up with Florida and Diggs stayed home at Maryland isn't really the point; that FNL was about putting the process together.
And Florida reaped the benefits of having that process better ironed out in 2012. The day before Friday Night Lights, Vernon Hargreaves III committed to the Gators, becoming Florida's 18th commitment for 2013 and the most talented player in the class. Antonio Riles, Jordan Sherit, and 2014 prospect Travonte Valentine all followed in the days after FNL, and it was unquestionably a success: Florida had gotten to the 20-commit plateau in July, building the foundation for a massive class, and had continued its cherry-picking of the Tampa area for the 2013 cycle, adding Hargreaves and Sherit to a class that already included Joey Ivie and laying more groundwork for Alvin Bailey's September commitment. Florida will almost always do best on the recruiting trail when the Tampa Bay Area is fertile, and it did well to scoop up several strong players from the region in the Class of 2013.
But the Class of 2014 is a different cycle, one in which Tampa is far less rich in top prospects. 247Sports puts just two Tampa-area kids in its top 20 for Florida in 2014, and neither player, Georgia commit Isaiah Wynn or Clemson commit Artavis Scott, is in the service's top 15. Florida is also in a different situation, hovering around 10 commitments (depending on whether you believe Joseph Paul and Benjamin Knox will remain in this Florida class) with a need of the kind of fleet talent that is concentrated heavily in South Florida in 2014, and with an interest in getting its momentum restarted by adding names to a list.
Some of that fleet talent is already pledged or leaning to the Orange and Blue: Dalvin Cook and Khairi Clark are in the fold, and the trio of Ermon Lane, Chris Lammons, and Quincy Wilson, all part of the fantastic 7-on-7 club team South Florida Express Elite, is beginning to look like a contingent that will stick together in college, with Florida looking like the destination that would best accomodate all three. But Lane's not coming to Friday Night Lights, and while Lammons and Wilson are, Lane and Wilson have said they want to commit on the same day, likely in August. (One convenient possibility: August 25, when Wilson's University School takes on Lane's Homestead High on ESPN.)
Fellow South Florida studs Johnnie Dixon, who is from recent Florida pipeline Palm Beach Dwyer, Travis Rudolph, whose 247Sports Crystal Ball is full of Florida predictions, and Richard Yeargin III, who played on that South Florida Express Elite team, are all reportedly making the trek up to Gainesville, too. But Dwyer coach Jack Daniels has publicly soured on Florida since Dwyer prospect Jacoby Brissett's transfer, Rudolph appears to be taking his time with his recruitment after committing to Miami back in 2012 and decommitting from the 'Canes in early 2013, and there may not be space for Yeargin if the Thursday night commitment of Justus Reed signals that Florida has just one more spot at defensive end and/or BUCK that it is reserving for Lorenzo Carter.
Florida has to feel decent to good about its positioning for all six of those prospects, save maybe Dixon, if it wants to press for them, but it likely won't be expecting commitments from any of them this weekend. And, really, there's not much left for 2014 prospects to do but commit, and not much left for coaches to do with 2014 prospects but recruit.
At this point, most coaches know what they think about the rising senior class, and likely have for some time. These players have gone to camps on various campuses, usually have at least a full junior season of film available, and have been thoroughly vetted by coaches for personal characteristics, potential, and red flags like academic troubles. There almost certainly won't be a 2014 player on Florida's campus today for whom Florida coaches don't have months of communication, a comprehensive assessment of on-field skills, and an inkling of likely college destination.
Florida's coaching staff has been on some 2014 prospects for three years, and is no longer playing the game of catch-up that new staffs must play on the recruiting trail. Instead, Florida will mostly spend the seven months between now and National Signing Day staying on players it has been on for ages, from Jacksonville lineman David Sharpe to Lane to FNL visitor Adoree' Jackson, and trying to stay ahead of other schools, and making runs at players who are currently trending away from the Gators or committed to other schools.
For the Gators, this Friday Night Lights is less about making a splash than skimming the pool, resetting their sights on the 2014 class after the first several months of 2013 brought a ton of momentum and enough adversity off the field to help stem it, and on beginning to plan for the future.
In fact, Florida might have a better shot of getting commitments from 2015 prospects this evening. Many, many, many of the good ones in Florida for 2015 are from Florida strongholds, and Florida is presumed to be in great shape with a few of them. CeCe Jefferson, an ultra-quick end from Baker County High near Jacksonville, has dropped tons of hints about a possible commitment on Twitter; Apopka lineman Martez Ivey and Jacksonville linebackers Jeffery Holland (Trinity Christian) and Sherrod Pittman (First Coast, the alma mater of Florida freshman Daniel McMillian) will be in town, too. (The elite 2015 prospect Florida might want most, East Lake wide receiver George Campbell, won't be committing to Florida unless he feels like pulling an all-time troll move, as he'll be at Michigan's BBQ at the Big House — yes, that's the event's real name — this weekend.)
That combination of factors — Florida's good to great positioning for a slew of 2014 prospects who may not commit tonight or soon, its better positioning for 2015 studs, and its interest in catching fire on the recruiting trail again — may mean that Florida takes more commitments from 2015 players than 2014 players in the next few days, and may have something to do with the recent spate of commits from 2014 players Dontae Angus and Justus Reed and 2016 legacy Tre Jackson. It may also mean a bit of frustration from recruiting-mad Florida fans who want every five-star to come to Gainesville, and to announce their decisions as soon as possible: Getting back into the rhythm of recruiting is a lot less satisfying than hitting high notes.
That frustration is understandable, but an understanding where Florida sits right now is a good cure for it. The sky is not falling, not nearly, and stars from it will still be plucked to become Gators. It just might not happen under these Friday Night Lights, is all.