By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Najee Goode had just finished a long session with the media as part of the necessary evils that come with being in a BCS bowl game like this week’s Orange Bowl meeting with Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson and turned to exit the room.
Jeff Casteel, the Mountaineers’ defensive coordinator, took one look at him as he exited, his shoulders broad, his body solid, shook his head and commented:
“If you look at him now, he looks like a linebacker.”
He said that because he had just been discussing how that wasn’t always the case. When he first began recruiting Goode he was playing at Benedictine High in Cleveland, a program with a rich history in Ohio, having won seven state championships stretching as far back as 1957.
When Casteel first saw Goode he dabbled as a linebacker but really was the team’s quarterback.
You had to be a little clairvoyant to project Goode into a middle linebacker who would graduate college five years later playing in a BCS bowl game with dreams of an NFL career, yet Casteel has been pretty good at that.
Certainly, over the years, he’s had to do a lot of patchwork with linebackers, taking undersized, not terribly heavily recruited athletes and turning them into centerpieces for his defense. WVU’s history is dotted with such players, including Reed Williams, Ben Collins and Bobby Hathaway.
Goode’s case was even more special, for WVU knew the kind of athlete he was, his father, John, having been a fifth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984 and having played two years in the NFL with St. Louis and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Goode was a good student and good citizen as well.
“He comes from a wonderful family. When you talk to them it doesn’t take you long to figure that out,” Casteel said. “His dad may be harder on him than I am, and his dad and mom are really good people. What’s more, he comes from a quality program.”
Goode is the youngest in the family. Brother Tariq lettered at Youngstown State as a wide-out in 2006, while Wakeem finished his senior season at Hampton in 2008 leading the team with 111 tackles at linebacker en route to an all-MEAC conference second team selection.
“We looked at him as a guy who we thought would develop into a linebacker. He had to get bigger physically, he could run, was a good athlete as a quarterback. He was smart,” Casteel said.
Despite all that, there was a problem. WVU had gotten in the mix late and had no scholarships available, meaning that Goode started off a walk-on.
In a way, having that walk-on season was a blessing for Goode, as it gave him a chance to grow and to also learn. He is what you would call a cerebral player who knows how to handle all three linebacking positions — the Will, the Mike and the Sam.
That, of course, gives Casteel great flexibility over the course of a season when injuries deplete the ranks.
“He did a great job,” Casteel would say of Goode’s development. “He has really matured and become a leader. He’s made a lot of big plays for us the last two years.”
He did it the right way, too. He really never had lifted weights until his sophomore year in high school, but by his sophomore year in college he was pumping more than 500 pounds, which is the equivalent of two pretty good sized linebackers.
Certainly he has accepted the role of leader, along with such players as Julian Miller and Keith Tandy on the defense.
That has been important as the Mountaineers readied themselves for Clemson and a chance to propel themselves into the national picture for next year with a victory.
“I told the younger guys to enjoy it,” he said.
It was a philosophy he picked up from his former head coach Bill Stewart.
“When Coach Stewart was coaching, he would tell us to stop and smell the roses because you have to do it sometime,” he explained. “Well, this is a chance to do it — Miami, on the beach, beautiful weather, beautiful girls.”
Goode understands just how important this game is.
“I was sitting at Oliverio’s with Keith and my boys. We were watching the Cincinnati game and the clock hit triple zero and Keith’s hand starting shaking. I just threw my stuff up in the air. It was like we hit the lottery,” Goode said of the night they clinched the Orange Bowl bid, needing Cincinnati to lose.
“We knew the situation. We were ranked higher than them. Only eight teams get to go to a BCS game and that means a lot to our conference and a lot to showcase our talent. For a first-year coach like Dana Holgorsen it’s a huge thing. Going against a first-class team like Clemson gives us a chance to showcase our talent.”
It is the biggest stage college football has, other than the championship game.
“It’s like the Super Bowl of college football,” Goode said. “In college football they have four BCS games. In the NFL they have one Super Bowl.”
Casteel expects him to go out in a big way.
“There’s no question he’s really grown throughout the four or five years here,” Casteel said. “I believe his last game here will be his best game.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.