Cornelius Evans spent the last couple of months of his unconventional high-school journey living with his cousin with no parental supervision in a two-story home in a Lawrenceville subdivision.
After attending four high schools in two states, he was taking classes at a degree completion program at a nearby learning center. Living apart from his mother and stepfather, who are in South Carolina, was proving an education in itself.
“I didn’t know this much goes into it,” Evans said. “Just basic stuff, like stuff you need. Grocery shopping’s been hard, too, but you learn.”
Now a Georgia Tech freshman, Yellow Jackets coaches are eager to find out how the long-armed linebacker fares when given some stability in coaching and schooling. His final high-school coach, Todd Wofford at Central Gwinnett High, is highly optimistic.
“Potentially, he could be a monster,” Wofford said of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Evans. “So it’s just a matter of how he picks up the defense, what he does in the weight room, basically. I know effort-wise and work-wise, he’ll do everything it takes. It’s just a matter of how quickly he can pick it up and put it all together.”
At first glance, Evans might be seen as another example of the transfer wave that has swept across college athletics and, to a lesser degree, high-school sports. However, Evans’ path was the result of a series of family decisions that had less to do with the pursuit of a college scholarship (though that was part of it) and more to do with a lot of life happening to Evans and his family.
“It’s different, but it’s sacrifices that we had to make for my family,” Evans said. “I’m OK with it.”
Evans grew up in Santee, S.C., but his life’s path began to take a turn when his older brother Donta suffered a knee injury playing football. In the summer of 2014, going into Donta’s junior year, he, his stepfather Keith Pearson and Cornelius spent the summer in Gwinnett County rehabbing the injury and training and going back home on the weekends. As Donta worked out with local athletes, the family saw advantages in living in the area (Pearson grew up in DeKalb County) over Santee, including education, training, recruiting exposure and other resources available in a metropolitan area.
“There was just so much more for them,” Pearson said.
When Donta earned all-state honors in South Carolina as a junior but drew scant recruiting attention, he (along with his stepfather and Cornelius) pushed to move to Atlanta, specifically Gwinnett.
It was not an easy sell for Cindy Evans, Donta and Cornelius’ mother. The family had paid off the mortgage on the house. Moving would mean taking on debt and finding new work. Cindy Evans said she would go along with it only if the house sold, thinking the market wouldn’t generate a sale.
“And it sold, so we moved,” she said. “It was a great thing.”
The potential to draw scholarships for both boys (their biological father Kent Evans lives in North Carolina and is in regular contact with them) drove the plan. Metro Atlanta is a target for college coaches nationwide because of ease of travel and the high volume of prospects in a concentrated area.
“The main objective was getting a scholarship, go to school, get a great education and play the sport that you love,” Pearson said. “You can’t beat it.”
The family moved in time for Donta to enroll at Archer High in Gwinnett — a state powerhouse — over winter break. When Donta finished spring practice at Archer — which draws heavy traffic from college coaches — he had drawn 17 scholarship offers, Pearson said. He ended up signing with Ole Miss, where he is a junior linebacker.
The family then bought a house in the Mountain View High district in Lawrenceville with the intention of staying. Cornelius played his sophomore season there. However, a string of family circumstances — the falling out of his mother and stepfather’s relationship, its restoration and then an ill relative — led him to move back to South Carolina, where he lived with his grandmother for his junior year, then return to Gwinnett for his senior year, but to live instead in the Central Gwinnett High district.
And that’s how he ended up at four high schools in four years.
“That was the reason,” Pearson said of the relationship difficulties. “If it wasn’t for that, he would have been at the same school probably his last three years.”
On top of that, add his mother’s return to South Carolina for professional reasons before his senior year, with his stepfather splitting time between both places and eventually returning to South Carolina for good in the spring. That left Cornelius to take care of the Lawrenceville home with his 17-year-old cousin O.J. Felder, who had come to live with Evans’ family.
“It was different, for sure,” Evans said of living apart from his mother and stepfather. “But just being mature enough to understand that they made sacrifices, so it’s my turn to make a sacrifice for them.”
All along, the lack of continuity at a school wasn’t doing his recruitment any favors, no small irony given that that was part of the reason for moving from South Carolina in the first place. But, at Central Gwinnett, Wofford recognized a versatile player who took coaching well and had size that would appeal to college coaches, not to mention an older brother whose muscular frame gives an indication of how he could continue to develop.
“He’s a kid who really wants to be great,” Wofford said. “Whatever we asked him to do, he did it because he likes the challenge.”
Through his senior season last fall, he was getting interest, but not at the power-conference level like his brother.
“He didn’t believe me when I told him, like, Bro, you’re going to get some power-five offers soon. Don’t worry about it,” Donta said.
Evans was proactive, reaching out to college coaches and sharing his highlights. After his hire at Tech, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, a friend of Wofford’s, made Evans a priority recruit, and Evans committed in January and signed in February.
As he sat and pondered the past four years in the quiet of his family’s home, Evans described the time as “hectic.” He comes across as mature for his age, recognizing the scope of what his mother and stepfather did on and his brother’s behalf, sacrifices that they were both able to transform into the scholarships that they desired.
“I know they love me,” he said. “That’s all I can ask for.”
This is the fifth story in a series about members of Georgia Tech’s incoming freshman class.
The series so far: