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Recapping Florida’s Friday Night Lights: Big fish abound, but can Gators reel them in?

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The Gators had plenty of wattage on hand in The Swamp.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators have held a summer camp that doubles as a recruiting event called Friday Night Lights since the days of Urban Meyer.

The 2017 version may have had the highest wattage since those halcyon days.

Florida welcomed a constellation of stars to be to campus on Friday, including two of the nation’s best quarterbacks in the 2018 class, and saw many of them participate and compete, rather than taking in the sights, sounds, and feels of The Swamp.

And while Florida has only reaped two commitments from that harvest so far, what the Gators did on Friday largely bodes well for their 2018, 2019, and 2020 recruiting classes.

Fields takes the field...

The biggest news of the night was unquestionably Justin Fields arriving and participating in drills after a Thursday visit to Florida State that had recruitniks buzzing about his ultimate destination.

Fields is the nation’s No. 2 prospect and No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class at the moment, and is the top-ranked uncommitted prospect for the recruiting cycle, sandwiched between quarterback Trevor Lawrence and defensive end Xavier Thomas, who are both committed to defending national champion Clemson. For a variety of reasons — likely including makeup, physical resemblance, style, geography, pre-existing relationship, and importance to several fan bases who reward even the most minimal updates on his status with clicks — Fields has also become a figure much like Cam Newton in many recruiting observers’ minds, one whose commitment will purportedly make the program that lands it and break the programs that don’t.

That explains why Florida fans would freak out about Fields staying longer than anticipated at FSU, helping to spur a few Crystal Ball predictions of him to the Seminoles, and why FSU fans would downplay Fields making his final visit of the summer to Florida — and throwing in Florida apparel in Gainesville, something he did not do in garnet and gold in Tallahassee, by his own admission: Fields is the prize of recruiting season right now.

For his own part, though, Fields has played things close to the vest, giving enough indications for fans of and coaches at his four finalists — Auburn, Florida, Florida State, and Georgia — to feel optimistic about their own chances. (Click the link above, and you’ll see that Fields is predicted to Auburn by Auburn insiders, to Georgia by Georgia insiders, and to FSU by FSU insiders.) And while Fields told reporters that his Florida visit would be his last for the summer, and Fields has been considered likely to commit somewhere before the summer’s end, he also seems to have sounded likely to take official visits this fall — and his decommitment from Penn State makes it easy to sell a narrative of “Well, he’s committed to School X, but School Y did make some inroads with him” all fall.

I don’t have any special intel on Fields, nor do I have any good reason to believe he’s leaning toward or away from Florida or any of his other finalists. But I expect everyone else in the recruiting industry will be trying to sell you tidbits on him all the way until National Signing Day, if possible.

...but Corral may lead it

Of course, in Florida insiders’ case, that might not be possible if a different five-star quarterback commits to the Gators. And given that California gunslinger Matt Corral named Florida his leader after what was reputedly a great visit this week, there’s reason to believe such a commitment is coming.

Corral decommitted from USC this summer, and named Florida and Georgia contenders to land him shortly afterward. Prior to making this week’s visit to Gainesville, he was also seen as a Georgia lean, in part because Florida was thought to be focused on Fields.

But Corral, who is somewhat more expressive than Fields on Twitter and in interviews, had not visited either Athens or Gainesville, and his first trip to an SEC school seems to have blown him away, leading him to name Florida his new leader. And that has convinced plenty of Crystal Ball predictors that he is ultimately a Gator to be, to the point that it’s fair to say Florida is “trending” for his commitment.

Corral is not quite on Fields’s level in the eyes of the recruiting industry: He’s the No. 2 dual-threat QB, just behind Fields, but is the No. 23 overall prospect, and the highest-rated four-star player in the 2018 class per the 247Sports Composite, rather than a five-star thrower.

Yet Corral is also the highest-rated QB in the 2018 class not named Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, and his pedigree — a top-tier California quarterback from perennial power Long Beach Poly who was once committed to USC — is top-notch. If he’s viewed as a consolation prize for a team that misses out on Fields, that would seem to be short-sighted at best.

And Florida’s calculus on the Fields-Corral conundrum has to factor in Corral likely deciding before the fall, while Fields may leave his pursuers twisting in the wind for months to come. Is risking missing out on both Fields and Corral while chasing Fields and keeping Corral warm worth it if the alternative is simply landing Corral and letting Fields go elsewhere?

That’s a tough decision to make, and while Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier probably ought to be credited for putting Florida in position to make it, I do not envy their position — because I know that, either way, second-guessing will be rampant.

Gators make inroads with other prospects

Florida nabbing just two commits on Friday — three-star 2018 tight end/defensive end Dante Lang and unrated but well-framed 2019 offensive tackle Wardrick Wilson — and adding 2018 safety Randy Russell alone on Saturday could be considered somewhat underwhelming, given the utter glut of talent on hand to see and be seen in Gainesville this weekend. (Corral — or Fields — committing would make the weekend a resounding success.)

But a lack of public commitments does not mean that Florida did nothing with other uncommitted players.

Corral now has Florida as his leader. Offensive lineman Richard Gouraige contemplated a commitment. Wide receiver JaMarr Chase, thought recently to be deciding between LSU and TCU at The Opening, is now considering Florida. And Jacob Copeland, perhaps Florida’s top target at wide receiver in the 2018 class, got somewhere between 18 and 20 stars in frame for a picture he tweeted out...

...featuring, from left, Corral, five-star defensive back Tyreke Johnson, himself, and Fields.

And Florida had dozens more prospects and prospects to be on campus and enjoying life on Friday, from the Apopka tandem of 2018 offensive linemen William Barnes and Ed Montilus to 2020 quarterback Harrison Bailey, considered a likely leading prospect in that class. There has undeniably been good buzz on Twitter for Florida since last night, with prospects considered Florida leans — Copeland and Barnes, and South Florida speedster Anthony Schwartz — helping build it.

And even if Florida does not get even a single public commitment between now and the end of the weekend — which seems unlikely — this Friday Night Lights got a huge number of players to Gainesville, where they got to perform and socialize with other elite talent in Florida’s still-impressive indoor practice facility and the hallowed confines of The Swamp. That alone has value, as the recruiting trail, which now includes Twitter and Instagram, often echoes with the stories told of good times.

And while we won’t know how many of the players in attendance will sign with Florida until they actually do, and might not know how many of those players will be good on Saturdays until the end of this decade, programs need wins like a fun and well-liked recruiting event on these Friday nights to accumulate the talent necessary to win on those Saturdays.

Florida got such a win. Add this one to more of those Saturday triumphs, and the Gators could keep an ascendant trajectory under McElwain — one that cannot go much further skyward before they are competing for championships.