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HOUSTON -- Go west, young man.
Top-tier high school football players from coast to coast often have the choice to play at any program in the country. Some recruits -- such as Class of 2011 No. 1 overall player Jadeveon Clowney -- stay close to home. Others, including former Rivals100 selections Manti Te'o, Barrett Jones and Jarvis Jones, go elsewhere.
For each member of the quartet, the decision of where to attend college was difficult. However, as evidenced by the multiple stops they made on the awards circuit, the path each chose was the correct one.
Together in Houston as Lombardi Award finalists, all four reflected on the factors that went into electing to leave their home state, stay close and -- for Jarvis Jones -- leave and then return. None said that the process got out of hand or was taken out of his control.
Clowney did not announce his college decision until two weeks after National Signing Day in 2011 -- going public with his choice on his 18th birthday. The former Rock Hill (S.C.) South Pointe standout was down to two in-state schools, South Carolina and Clemson, as well as national recruiting heavyweight Alabama. He chose South Carolina.
At the time, he said it was a tough choice. Looking back, the Bednarik, Nagurski and Hendricks award finalist said he knew South Carolina was where he would go.
"My parents wanted to see my games, and South Carolina was the closest program to me," Clowney said. "I gave looks to some other schools, but I sort of knew all along where I would end up playing.
"It was hard in some aspects because all of those schools really want you, so there is some pressure to pick all of them. I was fully supported by my family, so that took some of the pressure off of me."
Barrett Jones said that because of his family ties he did not feel the pressure to stay within the state lines coming out of high school.
The No. 1-ranked center and No. 60-rated overall player in the Class of 2008, Jones followed his father's footsteps, leaving Memphis (Tenn.) Evangelical Christian and going to Alabama.
"I think most people expected me to go (to Alabama)," he said. "That is where my dad went, so it wasn't a tough decision.
"When I was getting recruited, Tennessee was in disarray, so I didn't feel like there was much pressure to stay in the state."
Jones has won the Wuerffel, Outland, William V. Campbell, and Rimington trophies. His NFL draft stock has risen each year as he has shifted among three offensive line positions and played for three national championships.
He said he knew it was the right decision and that his time in Tuscaloosa has confirmed that.
"Obviously, it has worked out for the best," Jones said. "This conference plays the best football in the country, and it prepares you for the next level. That isn't to say that there aren't great programs not playing in the SEC, but I don't think that any other conference can match what happens here week in and week out."
Te'o was the No. 12-rated prospect in the Class of 2009 and was a five-star player out of Laie (Hawaii) Punahou.
Many high school players from the Pacific Islands wind up playing on the West Coast. Most commit to BYU, Colorado, Oregon State or USC.
Te'o said USC and BYU were in the picture before he elected to go to Notre Dame.
"I was very close to committing to USC," he said. "At the time, USC was USC, always playing for national titles and in the spotlight. There were some people who wanted me to go to BYU, too.
"I never felt like there was too much pressure to go to one school or the other. They were all pulling me equally, really, so I felt like it was my choice still and that they all let me make it myself."
Te'o took official visits to Stanford and UCLA before choosing to leave Hawaii for South Bend, Ind., on Signing Day.
This season, Te'o accepted the Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player; the Butkus Award, which goes to the top linebacker; the Lombardi Award, presented to the nation's top lineman or linebacker in conjunction with personal service and leadership; the Maxwell Award, given to the most outstanding player; the Nagurski Award for the top defensive player; and The Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.
He was nearly a teammate of Jarvis Jones.
"It would have been pretty cool," Jones said. "Manti was supposed to be a silent commit to USC when I committed there, and we could have both been there at the same time."
Jones was the lowest-ranked of the four, the No. 72-rated overall player in the Class of 2009.
Like Te'o, he left his home state, going from Columbus (Ga.) Carver to USC. He announced his intention on National Signing Day.
Jones said USC was the right place for him at the time.
"I was looking for a mentor," he said. "I really believe that you should always be trying to surround yourself with people who have done what you want to do.
"I went to USC because of Ken Norton. He was a mentor for me. He played a long time in the league, won the Super Bowl; he was an educated and well-spoken man. I really looked up to him for already going through all of the things I wanted to go through."
Jones was immediately put onto the field at USC. He played eight games as a true freshman on special teams and as a backup linebacker. During a game against Oregon, he suffered a neck injury -- diagnosed as spinal stenosis -- that ended his career with the Trojans.
He returned home to play for Georgia.
"I felt like I could have stayed at USC and played and started," Jones said. "When that didn't work out, I looked around and Georgia was home.
"My family didn't get to see me play while I was at USC, so I got to come home and play in front of them. Georgia felt like a family, too. They gave me an opportunity, and I am forever grateful for that and for my time there."
After a stellar season, Jones was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-SEC selection, an All-American and a finalist for the Nagurski, Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi awards.
He, like the other three players, said that looking back is nice but the goal is to keep moving forward.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "All of these guys are tremendous players and have a lot of positives going for them.
"There is a lot of luck and a lot of hard work that go into everything, and I hope that I am blessed enough to have it continue."
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