NEW ORLEANS — Catching the game-winning touchdown pass to win the national championship made Hunter Renfrow a legend overnight and the Big Man on Campus as soon as he got back to Clemson last January.
Students stopped him for pictures. They asked for autographs. A professor even said to him, “I told you so!” after predicting Renfrow would catch two touchdown passes in the national championship game against Alabama.
Then Renfrow started walking around with defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, he of the legendary split during the championship celebration, and the Big Man on Campus proved to be no match for the (much) Bigger Man on Campus.
“Usually I’ll get the attention,” Wilkins said with a wide grin Thursday at the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. “Then I’ll call him out and be like, ‘Hunter Renfrow! Hunter Renfrow, come here!’ He doesn’t really like that, so I’m always doing that to him.”
Is it because the living, breathing championship hero no longer gets recognized now that a full year has passed since his record-book performance?
Wilkins shakes his head.
“When you see a 300-pound, 6-4 Christian and barely 6-foot, 150-pound Hunter Renfrow — I stick out before he does,” Wilkins says.
We pause here to correct the record: Renfrow weighs 180 pounds.
But therein lies the rub: Bigger players have always stood out far more than Renfrow, whether strolling on campus or lining up on the football field. It is why Renfrow did not get any major scholarship offers out of high school and decided to walk on at Clemson, opting to take his chances against receivers, linebackers and defensive backs with more size and recruiting stars next to their names.
Players like Renfrow generally have to make up for their smaller size with something else. Renfrow came into Clemson with a work ethic that would serve him well. But he also focused on technique and fundamentals as a redshirt freshman. Everything you see today, his disciplined route running, his strong hands, his smarts, the trust his quarterbacks have in him, are all a direct result of one very inconvenient truth: Nobody thought he could do it.
“It’s been surreal and it’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Renfrow said. “I’ve got another year next year and another playoff this year so hopefully we make better memories.”
We pause here to allow Alabama fans to scream in unison, ‘Nooooo!’
Still today, it seems unfathomable that a loaded Alabama defense filled with NFL prospects up and down the two-deep could not stop Renfrow in consecutive championship games, allowing him 18 total receptions for 180 yards and four touchdowns.
“Renfrow’s a guy that I feel like people underestimate until they get against him,” said Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, whose job is to defend Renfrow every day in practice. “He just keeps you very honest in your technique. You can’t keep your eyes in the backfield. You have to keep your leverage. The hardest things is getting the ball out of his hands. Believe it or not, he has very strong hands.”
Rewind for a minute, though. Why is Renfrow underestimated considering all he has done?
“I mean look at him,” O’Daniel said. “No disrespect to him. He’s not a guy you’d expect to make four touchdowns in two national championship games.”
Perhaps a bit of underestimation could be forgiven in their first meeting. Renfrow went into the matchup with 23 total catches.
Alabama, instead, focused its efforts on slowing down bigger-play receivers Artavis Scott and Charone Peake, leaving Renfrow open. He was so effective, the Tide switched safety Minkah Fitzpatrick onto him after halftime. Renfrow finished with 10 catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns in the Clemson loss.
Surely Alabama would figure this out the second time around. But, again, focused on slowing down the deep threats on the outside, Renfrow became the best option for Deshaun Watson. He made one catch after another, in a virtual replay of the last time they saw him on the field.
On the decisive game-winning touchdown catch, the coaching staff called the play “Crush” just for Renfrow. As he stepped to the line, he envisioned the grass on the practice field back at Clemson to calm his mind. Perhaps he also remembered he scored the first touchdown in the spring game on the exact same play call.
Up in the stands in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, more than 50 Renfrow family members screamed and hugged in jubilation. Tim Renfrow, the family patriarch, coached Hunter in high school and first introduced his son to the sport. When Hunter was a child, Tim fashioned him a field goal post out of PVC pipe on Christmas. Hunter would kick footballs through the uprights, pretending he had just won the national championship for Clemson.
But his first real exposure to football came in the front yard with his brothers and Tim, as they practiced the triple option with a cluster of trees as the backdrop.
“My dad would have us go down block on the trees,” Renfrow said. “I remember throwing the football in the air, touching as many trees as I could and then catching it.”
Tim Renfrow had been an NAIA All-American at Wofford College, just 60 miles away from Clemson in Spartanburg, South Carolin, playing football and baseball. In a twist that seems incredible still today, Wofford opened the 1981 season against Clemson — and only because the Tigers needed a last-second replacement to fill a vacancy Villanova left when it decided to drop football.
Hunter Renfrow on his big performances against Alabama. Video by Andrea Adelson
Playing in Death Valley, Tim Renfrow started at defensive back and had an interception. Some 36 years later, his son helped deliver the first national championship at Clemson since … 1981.
“I knew Hunter was talented, and I knew he had some ability, but you don’t ever know,” Tim Renfrow said. “He was undersized, but he was an athlete and I knew he loved to play. We felt very comfortable about him getting an opportunity, and so he got to go in and work and get better. We’re all just so proud of him. So blessed.”
Life had changed in an instant for Renfrow, whether he realized it or not. Think about the most iconic championship game plays in recent memory. Most players are in their final collegiate game, and though they have an opportunity to revel in the moment on campus, this has been a yearlong celebration for Renfrow — both at Clemson and back home in Myrtle Beach.
For a self-described shy guy, avoiding the spotlight has now become unavoidable. Renfrow recalled once crying and hiding under desks in kindergarten because he was scared to be around so many kids. But now? He smiles for every photo and autographs every picture. When the people who know him in Myrtle Beach stop him, he has a conversation with them, no matter how long it takes.
“It happens everywhere he goes,” Tim Renfrow says. “That’s part of the deal. We always tell him if you dropped that pass, you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Be thankful.”
Renfrow certainly is, but he also hopes there is more to come. Because in this third matchup between Clemson and Alabama (Monday, 8:45 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN App), the spotlight remains on Renfrow as he matches up against All-America safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Asked how Alabama planned to game plan for Renfrow this year, defensive back Levi Wallace said, “I can’t disclose that information.”
But there is no doubt Alabama wants to limit Renfrow this time around.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott says Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow against Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is the matchup to watch in the Sugar Bowl.
“We don’t want any receiver to do well against us,” Wallace said. “We base our secondary off stopping the pass. But he’s a great receiver, he makes really great catches, runs really great routes. We have to focus on that this year.”
Still, the Alabama defense faces the same conundrum as the past two years: focusing on Renfrow means leaving guys such as Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and Tee Higgins more opportunities for bigger plays down the field.
Renfrow said he is interested to see how Alabama will play him, but also added, “It’s not going to change what I do. It’s not going to change how we attack them. Our coaches do a great job. They have plans for whatever they bring.”
If that means another big day for Renfrow, then he’s ready for it.
Used to it, even.