- Hunter Renfrow doesn't fit the profile of the type of player Alabama's fearsome defense would have no answer for on college football's biggest stage. But for a wealth of reasons, he has an undeniable knack for the moment.
For an even closer look at Clemson’s most unlikely hero, watch Andy Staples’s extended feature on Hunter Renfrow’s rapid rise, exclusively on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV. SI TV is your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries, original sports programming and features. Start your seven-day free trial now on Amazon Channels.
Hunter Renfrow glanced at the clock as he found his assigned spot on the right hash. Six seconds. Raymond James Stadium throbbed. This snap probably would decide a national championship. If all went according to plan, the ball would wind up in the hands of a redshirt sophomore who came to Clemson a little more than two years earlier as a 155-pound walk-on. In the stands, orange-clad Clemson fans begged for a touchdown. Crimson-clad Alabama fans begged for a stop. Between the one-yard line and the goal line stood cornerback Tony Brown, the former five-star recruit assigned to cover Renfrow. Renfrow set his feet. He looked down and saw…
“Dormant grass,” Renfrow says.
The grass in Tampa last January was quite lush, but Renfrow’s mind wasn’t in Tampa in that moment. It was back in Clemson during the early part of spring practice, when the grass is a brownish yellow still waiting for the warmth that will turn it green and make it grow again. The No. 2 on Brown’s chest morphed into the No. 6 worn by Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel on all those days when Renfrow practiced Orange Crush, the rub play that Clemson loves to use near the goal line.
Renfrow doesn’t remember much about the next five seconds. While the biggest moment of his life played out in Florida, he was back in the Upstate of South Carolina running another practice rep. His mind returned to Tampa as the ball settled in his hands. As he tumbled across the sideline in the end zone following Brown’s last-ditch attempt to dislodge the ball, Renfrow scanned the grass. Any yellow? No. No yellow. He stood and, with his right hand, tossed the ball under his left arm. It spiraled into the hands of the head linesman. There was, after all, still one second remaining. Renfrow would have his entire life to celebrate that catch. Best to avoid a penalty now.
That catch was Renfrow’s 11th career touchdown reception. But it also was his fourth career touchdown reception against Alabama in a national title game. How is that possible? How can a player who had exactly zero FBS scholarship offers play his best games on college football’s biggest stage against the absolute best opponent?
Renfrow has thought about that. While he knows he’s much better than you think he is, he also knows Alabama’s defense has shut down some phenomenal players. How does he keep getting open against the Crimson Tide in huge games? And can he do it again when the Tigers face Alabama on Monday in a playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl?
Renfrow’s answer to why he can play his best in the highest pressure situations is simple. His faith buoys him. “Regardless of what happens,” Renfrow says, “whether I drop that pass or whether I catch it, God’s going to love me the same.” That belief, he says, erases any fear.
Renfrow’s teammates and coaches believe there is more to his tendency to shine at just the right moment, though. It is a combination of that inner peace, a tendency to get underestimated, an unusual skill set and years of work spent overcoming a first impression that doesn’t exactly scream “first option on a play to win the national title.”
Let’s start with that first impression.
Renfrow stands 5'10". “He was 155 pounds when he got here,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says. “Now he’s a whopping 180 and benches 225 one and a half times. But he was benching 135 once when he got here.”
He’s jug-eared and baby-faced. Strap an acoustic guitar on him and he’ll look like the new preacher in town who just wants to rap about God. Hang a whistle around his neck? “A P.E. coach,” says fellow receiver Ray-Ray McCloud.
But put Renfrow in the slot on third down? “He will expose you,” Clemson cornerback Ryan Carter says.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott noticed this disparity between how Renfrow looks and what Renfrow does when Renfrow came to a Clemson camp before his senior year at Socastee High in Myrtle Beach. Scott had been tipped off about Renfrow by a former college coach who knew the area well. The coach believed Renfrow, then an option quarterback playing for his father Tim, was being severely under-recruited. Who was that coach who first recognized what Alabama would learn the hard way in two national title games? This guy.
Renfrow, according to David Bennett, was a dog.
Given Bennett’s enthusiastic recommendation, Scott expected something different than the boy who arrived at that camp. “He looked like he was in the eighth grade,” Scott says. He didn’t play like it, though. At that camp, Renfrow flashed the athleticism that had Appalachian State recruiting him as a receiver and as a centerfielder. Afterward, Clemson coaches pulled him aside and offered a good news/bad news scenario. They wanted Renfrow on their team. But they wouldn’t be offering a scholarship. He’d have to walk on, and they understood if he would rather take a scholarship somewhere else.
Renfrow was crushed. He knew he could play with any of the receivers mulling scholarship offers from Clemson. But he also understood the coaches’ doubts. So as he rode back to Myrtle Beach from that camp, he gave himself a choice. “I’m either going to feel sorry for myself, or I’m going to embrace it and realize it can be a positive,” he remembers thinking. “Nothing is going to be given to me. I’m going to have to earn it.”
Renfrow admits he tried to leverage his Appalachian State scholarship offer—he would have gone on a football scholarship but also would have played baseball—into an offer from Clemson as the process moved forward, but Tigers coaches didn’t bite. They knew Renfrow wanted to come to Clemson. And Renfrow knew he had to take the chance.
Renfrow surmised that the personal histories of the coaches would guarantee him a fair shot. Scott, then the receivers coach, was a walk-on receiver at Clemson. Tony Elliott, then the running backs coach and now the other co-OC, also was a walk-on receiver at Clemson. Swinney was a walk-on receiver at Alabama.
Swinney is quick to point out the different levels of walk-on. In Tuscaloosa, Swinney was what he now refers to as a “crawl-on.” “They didn’t recruit me to walk on,” Swinney says. “I begged them to give me a shot.” Renfrow was recruited. He took an official visit to Clemson. Instead of trying out for the team, he arrived with the scholarship players.
In the summer of 2014, the newcomers joined the veterans for what the Tigers call “skills and drills” work. After a few days, the older players in the secondary were all asking the same question.
Who is this guy?
“A lot of us were taken aback,” Carter says. While Renfrow clearly needed to get stronger, he had a natural gift for getting open. What he lacked in straight-line speed he made up for with a freakish ability to cut without slowing down. Defenders struggled to handle Renfrow’s ability to change direction without tipping off where he was headed. That season, future second-rounders Mackensie Alexander and T.J. Green had better luck against most of the receivers they played on Saturdays than they had against scout-teamer Renfrow.
If this bit of history punctures the myth of Renfrow the great walk-on hope, so be it. The truth is Renfrow probably never should have been a walk-on in the first place. It’s also true that he wasn’t a walk-on for long. He was placed on scholarship before he ever set foot on the field in a game for the Tigers. He’s probably going to play in the NFL starting in 2019, even if he gets drafted lower than he should for the same reasons he didn’t get a scholarship. Scott tells NFL scouts that he’d love if they could send their team’s best cornerback to Renfrow’s pro day. Scott guarantees Renfrow would win three of five routes against anyone.
Renfrow probably believes this too. He’d never say it, though. He always knew he could play. After 2014, his teammates knew he could play. The next step was showing the world he could play.
A neck injury suffered by Mike Williams in the 2015 season opener forced everyone else in the Clemson receiving corps to pitch in more. Redshirt freshman Renfrow had played his way into the rotation in the spring, but Artavis Scott, Charone Peake, Deon Cain and tight end Jordan Leggett found themselves targeted more by quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Until the national title game.
The night before the Tigers faced Alabama in Glendale, Ariz., Elliott made a prediction. “This game is going to come down to an unlikely hero,” Elliott told the offense. “Hunter Renfrow, you’re going to catch two touchdowns in this game to help us win.” Elliott was half right.
Renfrow did score two touchdowns. He beat Minkah Fitzpatrick down the right sideline for a 31-yarder in the first quarter. Then he beat Fitzpatrick again for a diving 11-yard touchdown catch later in the first. Renfrow wasn’t a secret anymore.
He will be famous after this game..— Serpent (@sammywatkins) January 12, 2016
Renfrow finished the night with seven catches for 88 yards, but Alabama wound up hoisting the trophy after a 45–40 win. Elliott’s prediction was forgotten. “In the moment, you’re just hurting for the seniors in the locker room,” Renfrow says. “It wasn’t sweet at all.”
All of the players returning to Clemson dedicated themselves to a return to the national title game the following season, and the Tigers played their way into that game. The opponent? Alabama, of course. Could Renfrow do it again?
Elliott made no predictions this time. No one needed to speak touchdowns into existence. The Tigers knew they could play with the Tide. Meanwhile, Alabama players and coaches were about to underestimate Renfrow again. Two days before the game, a reporter asked Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt about the challenges the Clemson receivers posed. “They have got several really good football players out there. It's not just one: Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Scott, Ray-Ray,” Pruitt said. “They have got some difference-makers out there and then you have [Jordan] Leggett at tight end.” Anyone missing? In fairness, Pruitt hadn’t been Alabama’s DC when Renfrow torched the Tide for two touchdowns a year earlier. But the omission only makes what happened that night in Tampa more dramatic.
Renfrow played an even better game the second time than he did the first. The guy who never talks trash even talked some smack to Brown—before apologizing three plays later. In the third quarter, Renfrow caught a short pass over the middle, split two defenders and sprinted in for a 24-yard touchdown. Earlier in the third, Renfrow had saved a touchdown when he tackled Alabama’s Ryan Anderson following a fumble recovery. The Tide wound up kicking a field goal, so Renfrow’s tackle was worth four points to the Tigers, who eventually would win by four.
But as the clock ticked down before a third-and-three play on Clemson’s last drive, that win seemed unreachable. The Tigers finished their second-down play with 57 seconds remaining on the clock, but they didn’t snap the ball until 27 seconds remained. Here, Renfrow acted as Watson’s security blanket. He went in motion and then ran a slant. Watson knew Renfrow would find an open crease, and he hit him for a six-yard gain. “When you get to those big games, it’s not always about the best athlete,” Renfrow’s father—and former coach—Tim says. “It’s about who is where they’re supposed to be.” Renfrow was where he was supposed to be, and fortunately he and Watson didn’t take any longer to get there. In a football analytics class he took this fall, Renfrow learned that even though the Tigers made the first down on that play, their win probability went down from 34.6% to 31.4% because of how much time they burned.
Still, when Watson absolutely needed a completion five plays later, he looked again to Renfrow. Renfrow, meanwhile, looked at dormant grass in his mind. On the sideline, O’Daniel and Carter watched Alabama’s defense line up, and they knew Renfrow would pop open. Brown and Marlon Humphrey were lined up in man coverage on Renfrow and Scott. Instead of being staggered, Brown and Humphrey manned the same line of longitude. O’Daniel and Carter had been victims of that play enough times to know that with the defenders lined up that way, all Clemson needed was for Humphrey to engage Scott as Scott crashed down on a slant. In the coach’s booth high above the field, Elliott saw Alabama’s alignment and rose to his feet. This was going to work.
Watson took the snap and rolled right. As the defenders on Clemson’s sideline had predicted, Brown got caught in the wash when Humphrey engaged Scott. Renfrow popped open in the front right corner of the end zone. In the stands, something dawned on Suzanne Renfrow. “Oh my goodness,” she thought. “He’s going to throw it to Hunter.” Watson threw.
When left tackle Mitch Hyatt saw this, one thought echoed. Hang on to the ball. Hang on to the ball. Hang on to the ball. Renfrow did. And then he flipped the ball to the first guy he saw wearing stripes. Swinney has shown this last part to the Tigers repeatedly as an example of how he wants them to play every down. Most don’t think they could have just tossed the ball to the official. “I probably would have done some crazy stuff,” McCloud says. Says Carter: “I might have just gone crazy. I’m glad he kept his composure.”
Renfrow estimates he’s signed 5,000 copies of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring the catch he still doesn’t completely remember. “It’s almost like it didn’t happen—like it was a dream,” he says.
But it did happen. Now he’ll get a third crack at Alabama in the College Football Playoff, and the underestimation has already begun. Earlier this month, ESPN sent a camera crew to Clemson to film key players for graphics an interviews that will appear before and during the game. Renfrow arrived at his appointed time. “Are you here to help?” a member of the crew asked Renfrow. The man assumed Renfrow was part of Clemson’s video staff.
“No,” Renfrow said. “I’m next.”