Inside Wes Goodwin’s meteoric rise to become Clemson football’s defensive coordinator
Clemson football’s newest defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin brings over 30 years of experience to the team, from playing in Super Bowl XXIX as a full back for the San Diego Chargers and at Clemson during his time on campus.
The “clemson football coach” is a person that has been at the top of their profession for a while. Wes Goodwin is one such example, as he has risen to become Clemson’s defensive coordinator.
It didn’t take long for Bruce Arians, the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals at the time, to understand what a gem he had in Wes Goodwin.
According to folklore, Arians was so taken aback by Goodwin’s performance that he relocated his administrative assistant down the hall so Goodwin could be directly next to his office. It’s the type of narrative you hear from some of football’s most recognized minds when they talk about the first time they met Goodwin, who was appointed Clemson’s new defensive coordinator on Tuesday.
“I’m sure a lot of people don’t know who he is,” Arians told ESPN. “But he’s one of the sharpest individuals I’ve ever worked with in coaching.” “Man, he’s all set to go. He’ll be forceful, and those who don’t already know what type of football coach he is will find out soon enough.”
It’s been a meteoric climb, to say the least.
Goodwin, 36, has never been a full-time position coach before, and now he’s taking over for Brent Venables, one of college football’s most renowned defensive coordinators, who is heading to Oklahoma as the Sooners’ head coach.
Arians, who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory last season, didn’t have to advocate for Goodwin to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Swinney has previously identified Goodwin as Venables’ successor as Clemson’s senior defensive assistant.
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And, while it’s not every day that a mid-30s off-field analyst becomes the primary defensive playcaller at one of college football’s powerhouse programs, Goodwin isn’t just any behind-the-scenes assistant.
Any coach with whom he has worked would tell you that Goodwin was crucial to their success.
Arians, Swinney, Venables, former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, and veteran defensive coordinators Kevin Steele and Ellis Johnson are all in this category. According to insiders, if Swinney hadn’t elevated Goodwin, Venables planned to take him to Oklahoma.
“He used to sit there with a book and draw every blitz run in the NFL that week,” Arians recalled. “He’d compile all these blitzes and could formationally change it.” “He was very knowledgeable about the blitz adjustments and added a lot to our game plans.” I believe several of our staff members were surprised at how much he contributed to our game planning.
“Nothing escapes his notice. He’s as sharp as a tack and will do an excellent job.”
Goodwin’s road to one of the premier defensive positions in college football is interesting. He grew up in Grove Hill, Alabama, in the southwestern region of the state, and attended Clarke Preparatory School, where he played offensive line in a wing-T scheme and helped the school win two state titles in 2004 and 2005.
Goodwin began his career as a student assistant at Mississippi State, where he worked under famed baseball coach Ron Polk. Russ McNickle, the brother of Goodwin’s youth pastor, was the pitching coach at Mississippi State and helped link Goodwin with Polk.
That encounter with Polk piqued Goodwin’s interest in coaching, so he shifted his attention to assisting with football. He noted that Woody McCorvey, Croom’s offensive coordinator at Mississippi State at the time, was also from Grove Hill and approached him about switching to football.
“He came over and chatted with Sylvester, and Sylvester identified a place for him to work without asking for money. He was simply a youngster who wanted to learn new things “As Clemson’s assistant athletic director of football administration, McCorvey remains one of Swinney’s closest confidants.
Johnson, a five-time Power 5 defensive coordinator, was in charge of Mississippi State’s defense at the time. He was astounded at how fast Goodwin caught up on things and how well he conveyed what he observed to coaches, players, and everyone else.
Johnson, who later organized defenses at Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, and South Carolina, said, “He was really well ahead of us on utilizing computers and technology and was a terrific benefit.” “I can guarantee you that he helped us as much as we aided him at Mississippi State, and I’m sure everyone will tell you that you need a better résumé than his to earn the Clemson defensive coordinator position.”
“Well, you look at all the coaches he’s worked for and all the coaches that wanted him to come work for them, and that’s his résumé right there,” says the narrator.
Goodwin was one of many promising assistants under Croom, who was voted SEC coach of the year in 2007 and guided the Bulldogs to an eight-win season before being sacked the next year.
Joe Judge, the current head coach of the New York Giants, was a graduate assistant on those squads. Jody Wright, who is now an offensive assistant with the Giants, and Anthony Blevins, who is an assistant linebackers coach and special teams assistant for the Giants, were both there. Ryan Hollern, who worked in recruiting for Croom, is now the Giants’ chief of staff, while current South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer was working as Mississippi State’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator in his first full-time assistant position. Brad Pendergrass, Croom’s football operations director, is currently a vice president at Wheels Up.
Pendergrass and Goodwin became friends during their time at Mississippi State and have remained close to this day.
“Wes’ collegiate football route may be described as unusual,” Pendergrass remarked. “It is, however, a tribute not just to the wonderful guy he is, but also to his tireless efforts and the value he brings to the teams on which he has served. He’s earned every chance he’s had, and this one is no exception.”
Croom, the first Black head football coach in SEC history, sought for young individuals who were energetic, intelligent, and appealed to a wide range of people while putting together his staff. Goodwin, he claimed, had checked all of those boxes.
“He has the ability to achieve anything,” Croom added. “He was animated, but he wasn’t one of those individuals that stuck out in a crowd. But as you got to know him, you could see he was different.”
Despite his youth, Goodwin commanded the respect of the players, and Croom kept a careful eye on all of his staff members for this.
“Some folks are clever, but they have a hard time connecting with the players,” Croom remarked. “Wesley is capable, which is a tremendous benefit.”
After Croom was dismissed after the 2008 season at Mississippi State, McCorvey and Charlie Harbison, who took over as defensive coordinator after Johnson departed for South Carolina, went to work for Swinney at Clemson. They both pushed for Goodwin to be brought on board as a defensive analyst.
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Steele was also the defensive coordinator at Clemson in 2009, and he joked that Goodwin isn’t one of those people who is your “right-hand man,” but rather your “both-hands man.”
Steele was the head coach at Baylor for four years and served as the defensive coordinator at Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, and LSU. He’s still astounded by Goodwin’s ability to digest so much information so rapidly.
Steele described it as “like he had a video game of every football game he’d ever watched in his brain.” “I never saw him become frightened because he recalled everything and saw things that other people didn’t notice. He was ready for whatever that came his way.”
Swinney and Arians had the same agent, Mike Brown, who passed away recently. When Arians was appointed as the Cardinals’ head coach, Swinney informed Arians about Goodwin, who had been hired by Arians as an assistant to the head coach in 2015.
Arians saw enough of Goodwin in the NFL during their three years together to know that he won’t be frightened by the stage or the players in his new job.
Arians remarked, “He had a fantastic connection with our secondary.” “All gamers want to know how they can improve and whether you can help them do so. Wes understands how to improve them and speaks the language well. That isn’t going to be an issue.”
Swinney asked McCorvey to call Goodwin after Arians stepped down due to health issues after the 2017 season.
Swinney told McCorvey, who was Swinney’s position coach at Alabama, that “we have get him back.” Clemson dispatched an aircraft to pick up Goodwin at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and he was reunited with Venables and the Tigers’ defensive juggernaut. In four of the last five seasons, Clemson has finished in the top three nationally in scoring defense.
“I know this: Brent thought a lot of Wes and what he’d meant to that defense, which is why he wanted to take him to Oklahoma,” Johnson said, adding that Goodwin had other options to depart in previous years.
But now it’s his time to lead Clemson’s defense with Mickey Conn, who is anticipated to take on the position of co-defensive coordinator.
Fans will doubt Goodwin’s qualifications, much as they did when Swinney was elevated from receivers coach to head coach at Clemson. Some of them screamed.
“That won’t disturb Wesley in the least,” Croom remarked. “That’s how he’s always been.” In fact, he’ll like it. He’ll just grin, laugh it off, and go back to work. It’s all about the game with Wesley, not anything else.
“He’ll be OK, and the Clemson defense will be fine.”
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