At the outset of his college football career, Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow was viewed as a sort of mascot.
Three years and a national championship-winning catch later, he’s at least graduated to the label of annoyance.
“He’s a pain in the you-know-what,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Renfrow, a former walk-on who showed up at Clemson weighing about 150 pounds.
Saban, whose team faces Clemson for a third consecutive season in the College Football Playoffs (8:45 p.m. Monday on ESPN), knows as well as any coach not to underestimate Renfrow for his 5-10, 180-pound build and baby-faced looks.
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Renfrow caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from now-Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson 11 months ago for the winning score in the national championship game in Tampa. Fla. This wasn’t the first time Renfrow was a “pain” to the Crimson Tide: Combined, in the last two national championship games, Renfrow has caught 17 passes for 180 yards and four touchdowns.
Saban is as detail-driven as any coach I’ve ever encountered, college or pro. Give him a dozen games of film and a month between the regular season and the playoffs, and he’ll know your team’s strengths and flaws better than you do.
And still, the Crimson Tide defense has been flummoxed by Renfrow in back-to-back championship games. Certainly, Clemson has had more prominent, more athletically gifted receivers: Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett and Deon Cain, to name three.
But when the 12-1 Tigers absolutely, positively need a reception in traffic to gain a first down, or when one play decides the national championship, Watson and his successor, Kelly Bryant, have consistently turned to Renfrow.
Saban gets that, and no one on Alabama’s defense will underestimate the slot receiver wearing No. 13 this time around.
“The guy is very quick, and very instinctive as a player – he knows how to get open,” Saban said of Renfrow Saturday at media day. “Very crafty, very quick.”
Saban leaned on a basketball analogy to illustrate that not all receiving targets in football come in the same size and shape.
“You need a point guard, you need a shooting guard, you need a power forward,” Saban said of Clemson’s varied targets for Bryant’s passes. “I think that’s one (of) the things they do very well as far as how they utilize their guys.”
Continuing with his basketball analogy, Saban called Renfrow a “go-to guy” when Clemson is looking to convert a third down.
That any coach in major-college football would describe Renfrow as a “go-to guy” expresses the incredible journey he has made. Renfrow was a high school quarterback in Myrtle Beach, running a primarily option-oriented offense.
He was quick, with uncommon ability to change direction and maintain balance. But that sure didn’t overcome his lack of size by ACC or SEC football standards.
Clemson took a chance, making him a “preferred walk-on” (translation: He hadn’t earned a scholarship, but he also wouldn’t just be dismissed as a tackling dummy in practice).
Every time Clemson coach Dabo Swinney would take a glance at the scout team, Renfrow was doing something right. Enough so that by 2015 he was on scholarship and by 2016, he was a regular in the receiving-corps rotation.
Now? The most prominent coach in college football just called him a “pain in the you-know-what,” and Renfrow relished the description.
“That’s pretty cool,” Renfrow said of Saban’s “pain” comment, and also the coach’s summing up Renfrow’s gift as crafty. “That means I pay attention to my fundamentals, and pay attention to what gets me open.”
Quarterback and slot receiver don’t sound much the same, but Renfrow has often said all the option plays he ran in high school carry over to what he does now: Quick, sudden decisions in traffic and the value of balance during change-of-direction.
Renfrow has another season of college eligibility remaining after this one. Swinney has said repeatedly Renfrow’s skill set will put him in the NFL.
They’ll probably question his stature all over again in the pros. He’ll just have to remind them he’s a pain-in-the-you-know-what.