By Brian Paglia and Derrick Mahone
Henry County coach Mike Rozier has seen both sides. He's seen former Warhawks wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson leave home for a college football opportunity
beyond the Southeast and thrive. Patterson signed with Stanford in 2009 and never looked back, eager to get an elite education while playing football.
He's seen former Henry County wideout Markeith Ambles leave home only to be embroiled in drama. Ambles signed with Southern California in 2010 and saw his freshman season derailed by suspension and homesickness that led to flirtations with transferring to a junior college only to eventually rejoin the team.
Patterson and Ambles' journeys offer insight into the pitfalls and advantages of playing college football far from home.
"Each kid's different," Rozier said.
The trend continues this year of players verbally committing to colleges well-distanced from the Southern Crescent. Of the nine players committed to Football Bowl Subdivision schools, five have their bags packed for a long haul -- Ola defensive backs D.J. Beard (Navy) and Ra'Chard Pippens (Stanford), and Eagle's Landing Christian's Christian Reeves (Virginia Tech) and Matt Rochell (Air Force). ELCA's Avery Walls is already at California as an early-enrollee.
The decision-making process to stay close to home or far away is as varied as the players themselves.
"There's a lot of variables there," Rozier said. "You've just got to go over a lot of things."
North Clayton coach Rodney Hackney's advice to his players being recruited is to choose a school that they would be comfortable attending if the staff that recruited them was to leave.
"Our first advice is to pick a school with their major," Hackney said. "We also tell them to find the school with the right system for them. They also need a school that they are comfortable at in case the coach leaves. You don't want to be in a situation where you have to end up transferring."
At the start of the recruiting process, Lovejoy coach Al Hughes gives his players a pamphlet filled with information. In the back of it, there is a recruiting checklist.
A player is advised to fill it out once they return from a recruiting trip.
"Usually, the college that rates the highest, is the one they chose," Hughes said. "There are some exceptions, but the player should pick the college that is best for them."
Rozier tells his players to go to the most reliable source for information on the school they're interested in -- the college players themselves.
"You know how the coaches are. They're good salesmen," Rozier said. "Find out from the players what's really going on there, what's the environment like. And then, are you going to fit in away from home?"
North Clayton linebacker Amarlo Herrera was happy that he doesn't have to go far from home. Although he had offers from nearly every major college, Herrera's first choice has always been Georgia.
When Bulldogs coach Mark Richt offered him a scholarship last year, Herrera jumped at the opportunity.
"I always wanted to stay close to home," he said. "If I didn't get the offer from Georgia, I was willing to leave. Once I got the Georgia offer, it really didn't matter about the other places."
In addition to staying close to home, Herrera's other preference was to not play in a cold weather state.
"If it came down to that, I would have had to make a hard choice," said Herrera, the Southern Crescent Clayton County player of the year. "I'm just glad it worked out with Georgia."
Pippens entertained thoughts of playing in Georgia early in his recruitment. The prospect of playing in his home state where his family could attend games was appealing.
But Pippens said his mother never gave him parameters during his college search. No school or state was off limits.
"I knew that my parents were going to come out and support me wherever I go," Pippens said. "My mom never told me that distance was a factor at all. So it didn't matter to me how close or how far the school was."
Pippens acknowledged that, once at Stanford, there will be drawbacks. But Stanford recruits nationally, and Pippens said he's become good friends with another Cardinal recruit from New York who will be far from home.
Both knew the opportunity to play football at a prestigious university, no matter how far, was too good to pass up.
"If I would've gone to a school close to home, I would be able to sometimes drive home real quick and come back. I won't be able to do that when I'm at Stanford," Pippens said.
That'll be something I miss out on, but it'll be a sacrifice I'll have to make."