The last time Justin Goodwin flew out to the west coast for a football game in Washington, he was on the other side of the ball.
A sophomore at the time, Goodwin began the 2014 season with a start at cornerback for Rutgers in a 41-38 win at Washington State.
The desperation swap came after Goodwin filled in as the second-leading rusher for the Scarlet Knights with 521 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013.
“It’s kind of funny, I guess,” said Goodwin, who recorded an interception on Washington State’s opening drive. “I’m just really excited to get back on the field and play our first game (at running back).”
Goodwin earned the nod as the starter earlier in the week.
As the first running back out when Rutgers visits No. 14 Washington on Saturday, Goodwin clawed his way back to the top of the depth chart.
“(Being the starter) means a lot,” he said. “I get a chance to go out and help the offense and put points on the board and just look forward to success.”
When Chris Ash and his staff arrived in the spring, offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer and running backs coach Zak Kuhr challenged Goodwin to find some grit and toughness in his approach.
“We asked (Goodwin) in the spring, ‘Are you just a nice guy? Is that all you are? Are you just a nice guy?’” Mehringer said. “And he kind of was like, ‘No I’m not, I’m a tough football player.’ I was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to see that. We’ve got to see that.’
“And Goody came out and played really physical this fall, came out as an intelligent kid who understands exactly what we’re doing when the defensive front changes, when the blitzes change, he reacts and fits right in with the offensive line protection wise. So he’s done a tremendous job. I have no hesitation when he goes into the game at all because I believe in that kid and amount of work that he’s put in.”
Senior safety Anthony Cioffi has been close with Goodwin since their commitments as juniors in high school. Goodwin's four-year roommate described the growth over time.
“He’s been my roommate for all of college, so it’s something where you see him grow as an individual and as a person,” Cioffi said. “... He just works hard and he doesn’t say anything. That’s the card he was dealt and he just put his head down, continued to grind and yeah. I’m really excited for him and I think he’s going to flourish him in this offense.”
While Goodwin mainly served as the third-down back in a four-man rotation last year, he has the chance to increase his role in the spread offense. Kuhr sees the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder as a promising fit with his ability to burst and cut through the line of scrimmage.
“He’s been running behind his pads, he’s making arm tackles, he hasn’t been afraid to run between the tackles,” Kuhr said. “If it’s a run between tackles, he hits it.”
Cioffi, who faces off regularly against Goodwin in practice, agreed.
“I feel like his lateral movement and his burst is really crazy, and he could really do damage in this league,” Cioffi said. “But I feel like, with this offense, he’s going to have a lot of more cutbacks and his vision is great, too, so he’s going to be seeing holes left and right. And him having that burst is going to get him to a second level. So he’s going to do great.”
Commended for his versatility as a pass protector and receiver out of the backfield as well, Goodwin built himself into a total package at running back.
The result is a seamless transition from the pro style to the spread.
“There’s definitely a lot more space,” he said. “A lot more to get vertical, get side to side — there’s a lot more options.”
When Goodwin puts the pads on for the final opener of his Rutgers career, it comes after he conquered adversity along the way.
As much as he could have explored transfer options, the Madison (N.J.) High product said the thought never crossed his mind — he always felt at home.
Now, as he enters the final chapter, the patience paid off.
“I just try to take everything and try to learn from everybody — all the coaches, all the players that I’ve been around and just learn the game and just try to perfect my craft,” Goodwin said.