College Sports

How Hunter Renfrow’s leap of faith carried him, Clemson to a national championship

Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow describes what it is like to come up big in title game

Former walk-on caught two touchdown passes, including game winner
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Former walk-on caught two touchdown passes, including game winner

Who could have blamed Hunter Renfrow had he not bet on himself? How many of us would have opted for the safer path?

He was being recruited by Appalachian State, which would have meant scholarship money and much more security that’d he’d end up playing college football instead of suiting up and watching.

Clemson was offering him, in college football terms, “preferred walk-on” status. That amounts to “we like you, but you’re going to have to convince us to love you.”

At the time he was making this decision he was playing quarterback at Socastee High in Myrtle Beach. He was fast and quick, with an instinct for “squirting” (his word) through narrow holes to gain yardage in traffic.

But he’d have to change positions in college and he was no sure bet, weighing 150 pounds at the time and, according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, weak even for that heft.

What happened Monday night against Alabama in the national championship game is the stuff of legend. Renfrow caught 10 passes, including the 2-yard touchdown catch with one second left that beat the Crimson Tide 35-31.

No one views him as a walk-on now. He’s won a scholarship and a lot more. He has four touchdown receptions between the two title-game matchups with the defending champion Crimson Tide, which was chasing a 15-0 season.

I asked Renfrow early Tuesday morning to describe his journey, and whether he thought this was how his his leap of faith would turn out.

“Never in a million years,” he said. “It’s like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream.”

In three seasons at Clemson Renfrow has gained 30 pounds and raised the weight he can lift from about 180 pounds to more than 280. Swinney believes Renfrow will someday not only make an NFL roster as a slot receiver, but be a very good NFL player.

Why not? He runs precise routes, he fights for yardage after every catch and he’s a fearless competitor.

He proved as much to teammates while redshirting his first season on campus. As a non-scholarship player, he was playing scout-team receiver, competing daily with the likes of cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who last April was a second-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings.

Word kept spreading about how this dinky kid was challenging elite recruits on the other side of the ball daily in practice.

“All the guys on defense were saying, ‘Hey, Hunter is going to be special.’ “ said quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw Renfrow all four title-game touchdown passes. “All the defensive guys were getting mad.

“So Swinney one day kind of went over there and watched him (and said) ‘Hey, let’s move him over here’ (with the regular offense). We needed a guy to be kind of a spark to this offense. … The sky is the limit for him.”

Clemson assembled one of the deepest receiving units in college football, starting with Mike Williams and running through Artavis Scott, Deon Cain and tight end Jordan Leggett. It was a pass-interference call, when an Alabama defensive back knocked down Williams in the end zone, that set up the Tigers with a first down 2 yards from what would become the winning score.

Despite all those highly recruited players, Renfrow became the primary target on the decisive play. Clemson got the man-to-man coverage it anticipated from Alabama. Scott, aligned outside Renfrow, cut to his left, essentially picking off a Crimson Tide defender. Renfrow went into the flat, crossing the goal line wide open before Watson feathered him the pass Tigers fans will be discussing 20 years from now.

Renfrow played all but one of the Tigers’ 95 offensive snaps Monday. Sure turned out he did the right thing betting on himself that he could build a career at Clemson.

“I just knew I was going to have to give everything I had,” Renfrow said of his exhaustion afterward. “I’ve dreamed about this since I was a kid. I couldn’t let those seniors go down like we did last year.”

Quarterback Deshaun Watson reflects on his three seasons at Clemson.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell