Inside Wes Goodwin's meteoric rise to become Clemson football's defensive coordinator

Clemson's defense, one of the top units in the country four of the last five years, will be in the hands of 36-year-old Wes Goodwin, the Tigers' new coordinator. John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

It didn't take long for then-Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians to realize what a gem he had in Wes Goodwin.

Arians was so impressed, as legend has it, that he moved his administrative assistant down the hall so Goodwin could be right next to his office. It's the kind of anecdote you hear repeatedly from some of the most respected minds in football when they recount the first time they crossed paths with Goodwin, who was named Clemson's new defensive coordinator on Tuesday.

"I'm sure a lot of people might wonder who he is, but he's one of the brightest people I've been around in coaching," Arians told ESPN. "He's ready to go, man. He's going to be aggressive, and people who don't already know are going to know soon enough what kind of football coach he is."

Talk about a meteoric rise.

Goodwin, 36, has never even been a full-time position coach, and now, he's taking over for one of the most accomplished defensive coordinators in college football, with Brent Venables moving to Oklahoma as the Sooners' head coach.

Arians, who won a Super Bowl last season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach, didn't need to vouch for Goodwin to Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. As Clemson's senior defensive assistant, Goodwin already had been pegged by Swinney to be Venables' replacement.

And while it's not every day that an off-field analyst in his mid-30s vaults to primary defensive playcaller at one of college football's powerhouse programs, Goodwin isn't just any behind-the-scenes assistant.

Ask any coach he has worked for, and they will tell you that Goodwin was invaluable to their success.

That goes for Arians, Swinney, Venables, former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom and former longtime defensive coordinators Kevin Steele and Ellis Johnson. In fact, had Swinney not promoted Goodwin, Venables was planning to take Goodwin with him to Oklahoma, sources said.

"He used to sit there and had a book and would draw every blitz run in the NFL that week, and he would compile all these blitzes and could formationally change it," Arians recalled. "He knew the adjustments to each blitz and added so much to our game plans. I think some of the guys on our staff were shocked how much he added to our game plans.

"He doesn't forget anything. He's as sharp as a tack and is going to do a hell of a job."

Goodwin's journey to one of college football's top defensive jobs is a fascinating one. He grew up in tiny Grove Hill, Alabama, in the southwestern part of the state and played on the offensive line in a wing-T offense at Clarke Preparatory School, which won two state championships while he was there in 2004 and 2005.

Goodwin attended Mississippi State, where he initially worked as a student assistant under legendary baseball coach Ron Polk. Goodwin's youth minister's brother, Russ McNickle, was the pitching coach at Mississippi State and helped get Goodwin connected with Polk.

That experience with Polk only further whet Goodwin's appetite to get into coaching, and he turned his focus to helping with football. He noticed that Woody McCorvey, who was then Croom's offensive coordinator at Mississippi State, also was born in Grove Hill and reached out to McCorvey about moving over to football.

"He came over and talked, and Sylvester found a spot for him to help, no money or anything. He was just a kid looking to learn," said McCorvey, who remains one of Swinney's closest confidants as Clemson's associate athletic director of football administration.

Johnson, who has been a defensive coordinator at five Power 5 schools, was running Mississippi State's defense at the time. He couldn't believe how quickly Goodwin picked up on things and the way he communicated what he saw to coaches, players, everybody.

"He was just way ahead of us on using computers and technology and was a tremendous asset," said Johnson, who also coordinated defenses at Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and South Carolina. "I can assure you that he helped us at Mississippi State as much as we helped him, and I'm sure everybody's going to say that you've got to have a bigger résumé than what he's got to get the Clemson defensive coordinator job.

"Well, you look at all the coaches he's worked for and all the coaches who wanted him to come work for them, and that's his résumé right there."

Goodwin was one of several promising staffers working under Croom, who was named SEC coach of the year in 2007 and led the Bulldogs to eight wins that season before being fired the following year.

New York Giants head coach Joe Judge was a graduate assistant on those teams. So was Jody Wright, now an offensive assistant with the Giants, as well as Anthony Blevins, an assistant linebackers coach and special teams assistant with the Giants. Ryan Hollern, who worked in recruiting under Croom, is now the Giants' chief of staff, while current South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer was in his first full-time assistant's job as Mississippi State's running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. Croom's football operations director, Brad Pendergrass, is now a vice president with Wheels Up.

Pendergrass and Goodwin hit it off during their time together at Mississippi State and formed a friendship that continues to this day.

"Wes' path in college football could be termed unconventional," Pendergrass said. "However, it's a testament not only to the great person he is, but also to his endless hard work and the value he adds to the staffs he's been on. He's earned every opportunity, and this one is no different."

In assembling his staff, Croom, the first Black head football coach in SEC history, was looking for young people with energy who were smart and appealed to everyone. He said Goodwin checked all of those boxes.

"He could do anything," Croom said. "He was enthusiastic and wasn't one of those guys who necessarily stood out in a crowd. But when you got to know him, you knew that this guy was special."

Despite his youth, Goodwin also commanded the players' respect, and that was something that Croom watched closely with all his staff members.

"Some guys are smart but can't relate to the players," Croom said. "Wesley can, and that's a huge plus."

After Croom was fired at Mississippi State following the 2008 season, McCorvey and Charlie Harbison, who took on the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator role after Johnson left for South Carolina, went to work at Clemson under Swinney. They both lobbied to bring Goodwin along with them as a defensive analyst.

Steele also was on that 2009 Clemson staff as the Tigers' defensive coordinator and jokes that Goodwin isn't one of those guys who's your right-hand man, but rather your "both-hands man."

Steele spent four years as Baylor's head coach and had defensive coordinator stints at Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and LSU. He's still amazed at how Goodwin was able to process so much so quickly.

"It was like he had a video game of every football game he'd ever seen in his head," Steele said. "He remembered everything and saw things other people didn't see, and I never saw him get rattled. He was up for whatever came his way."

Swinney and Arians shared the same agent, the late Mike Brown. So when Arians landed the Cardinals' head-coaching job, Swinney told Arians about Goodwin, who was hired by Arians in 2015 as assistant to the head coach.

During their three years together, Arians saw enough from Goodwin in the NFL to know that he won't be intimidated by the stage or the players in his new role.

"He had a great rapport with our secondary," Arians said. "What all players want to know is how they can get better and if you can make them better. Wes knows how to make them better, and he can talk the language. That's not going to be a problem."

When health problems forced Arians to step down following the 2017 season, one of the first things Swinney did was ask McCorvey to get Goodwin on the phone.

"We gotta get him back," Swinney told McCorvey, who was Swinney's position coach in college at Alabama. Sure enough, Clemson sent a plane to the Senior Bowl in Mobile to pick up Goodwin, and he was reunited with Venables and the Tigers' defensive juggernaut. Clemson has finished in the top three nationally in scoring defense four of the past five seasons.

"I know this: Brent thought the world of Wes and what he'd meant to that defense, and that's why he wanted to take him with him to Oklahoma," said Johnson, noting that Goodwin had other opportunities to leave in recent years.

But now it's his turn to run the Clemson defense in conjunction with Mickey Conn, who is expected to take on a co-defensive coordinator's role.

Similar to when Swinney was promoted from receivers coach to head coach at Clemson, fans will question Goodwin's credentials. Some of them loudly.

"That ain't going to bother Wesley a bit," Croom said. "It's been that way his whole life. In fact, he will like it. He will smile, laugh it off and go right on to work. It's about the game with Wesley, not all the other stuff.

"He's going to be fine, and so is that Clemson defense."