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The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of 2022 -- No. 3: Wes Goodwin, Clemson

The 2021-22 offseason would've been a natural time for Dabo Swinney to bring in fresh blood. Instead, he doubled down on his culture and his staff. It's his biggest bet yet.

Who: Wes Goodwin, Clemson 

Title: Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach

Previous stop: Clemson senior defensive assistant (2018-21)

Why he's important: When Dabo Swinney was promoted to Clemson's head coach in 2008, he immediately replaced offensive coordinator Rob Spence with a 29-year-old tight ends coach named Billy Napier. After the season, Kevin Steele replaced Vic Koenning as defensive coordinator. Napier was replaced after 2010, when Clemson finished 90th in yards per play. Steele lasted until the end of the 2011 season, when West Virginia unloaded 70 points on the Tigers in the Orange Bowl. (A GA on that defensive staff: Wes Goodwin.)

In replacing Napier, Swinney hired Chad Morris.

In replacing Steele, Swinney hired Brent Venables.

We all know how those moves went. Clemson went 11-2 in the first year of the Morris-Venables tandem. Though Morris eventually left after the 2014 season, from 2015-20 Clemson went 79-7 with six consecutive ACC championships, six consecutive CFP berths, four national championship game appearances, and two national titles -- both won head-to-head over Alabama. In an era where national champions are won quickly or not at all, Swinney defied gravity by steadily building Clemson from a solid program, to a really, really good one, and then to the absolute pinnacle of the sport. Best is the standard, as they say. 

Then came the 2021 season. As far as disasters go, this was a mild one. Clemson went 10-3, not 6-7. The run of six straight AP Top 5 finishes ended, with the Tigers falling all the way to... 14th. Only one of the three defeats came by more than a touchdown, and the 6-game winning streak Clemson carries into 2022 is the second-longest in college football. A down season had to come some time -- Clemson's six straight CFP berths bested Alabama's run of five straight, from 2014-18 -- and if one wanted to argue 2021 was a mere bump in the road and not a total change of course, there's plenty of evidence to make that case.

Fast forward to December. Oklahoma hired Venables on Dec. 5, and Virginia hired offensive coordinator Tony Elliott on Dec. 10.

Here was an opportunity to reshape the direction of the program, if Dabo so desired. Elliott was the highest-paid offensive coordinator in the country, and Venables the highest-paid coordinator, period, earning a combined $4.5 million in '21. And it's not as if Dabo doesn't have juice at Clemson. If he wanted to push that number to $5 million, he could have. Combined with his reputation as a generally great boss to work for and the returning players at Clemson, all he had to do was say the world and the crème de la crème of coordinators would've crawled over broken glass to get to Clemson. Dabo could have hired the Chad Morris and the Brent Venables of 2021 at once. It wouldn't have been a refresh, not a reset, at a natural time. 2015 to 2020 were great, but we all need some new blood from time to time, right?


PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: No. 15 Tim DeRutyer (Texas Tech); No. 14 Rob Sale (Florida); No. 13 Joe Gillespie (TCU); No. 12: Brennan Marion (Texas); No. 11: Derek Mason (Oklahoma State); No. 10: Eric Kiesau (Auburn); No. 9: Mike Denbrock (LSU); Jesse Minter (Michigan); No. 7: Mark Whipple (Nebraska); No. 6: Josh Henson (USC); No. 5: Jeff Lebby (Oklahoma); No. 4: Josh Gattis (Miami).

Dabo decided the answers were already in the building. On offense, he promoted Brandon Streeter, a former Clemson quarterback himself who GA'd at Clemson from 2004-05, then returned to the Motherland after Morris's departure. He bid his time behind Elliott and Jeff Scott, all while developing the likes of Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. It's a bit of a curious decision to promote your QBs coach to OC a year after you finished 120th in passing efficiency, but history tells us Dabo knows what he's doing.

On defense, Swinney replaced Venables with Wes Goodwin. This prompted a common question: Who is Wes Goodwin?

A Grove Hill, Ala., native, Goodwin pursued a coaching career as an undergraduate at Mississippi State, first working with the Bulldogs baseball team before switching to football. After graduating in 2008, he joined Dabo's first full-time staff as a GA, then moved to the full-time support staff as a defensive analyst in 2012. Goodwin left in 2015 to serve as the assistant to head coach Bruce Arians with the Arizona Cardinals, then returned to Clemson in 2018 as a senior defensive assistant. Now, with Venables gone, Goodwin has realized his long-awaited chance to run the defense himself.

Which also means that the Clemson defensive coordinator job is Goodwin's first on-field coaching gig. 

Again, history tells us Dabo's eye for coaching talent is sharp, and his praise for Goodwin was effusive.

“All I can tell you is Wes Goodwin is special. Everybody that has ever worked with him, everybody who knows him, these players, they know who he is and what he’s capable of. It’s a blessing that I’ve been able to hang on to him. He’s turned down three or four linebacker jobs in the NFL for the last three years, and I kept him and just said, ‘Hey, this is my plan. Just stay patient,'" Swinney said in December. "There’s a reason those NFL guys have been trying to hire him. He’s a very, very, very, very talented young coach with an incredibly bright future.”

Goodwin says the defense will remain "75 to 80 percent" the same as what Venables ran; most of his work has been pruning out the stuff Clemson hasn't run in years. And why wouldn't Clemson stay the course? Whereas the last game of the previous previous DC saw the Tigers surrender nine touchdowns, Vinny's swan song was a gem, limiting Iowa State to 13 points and 270 yards in a Cheez-It Bowl victory. 

Clemson finished third in yards per play and second in scoring defense a year ago. They lost to the eventual national champions 10-3 because their quarterback threw a pick-six for the game's only touchdown. The defensive front features two Preseason All-Americans in end Myles Murphy and tackle Bryan Bresse.  

Dabo examined the lay of the land and determined 10-3 was an aberration, not the beginning of a decline. The coach that has been notoriously slow to utilize the Transfer Portal, that embraced NIL at an arm's length, doubled down on his culture -- doubled down on himself -- in promoting Goodwin to run the defense and Streeter the offense.

If he's wrong, critics will point two those twin decisions as the moment his orange-and-purple castle started crumbling. But if Dabo worried what people said about his decisions, he wouldn't be Dabo in the first place.