Hunter Renfrow was talking about his team’s journey, the changes from the Clemson’s Tigers’ 2015 run to the College Football Playoff title game to a quest to return with hype and expectations.
The sophomore wide receiver might as well have been talking about himself.
“I was talking to, I think, Jordan Leggett, the other day in practice and just talking about how last year felt like a storybook,” Renfrow said. “It was kind of destined to be. And kind of like it was supposed to happen. This year I feel like we’ve earned everything and we’ve gone out and proven ourselves.
“We know we’re going to have some bumps along the way.”
A year ago, he was the uplifting story. The 5-foot-11 walk-on receiver who didn’t even play the position before college got a crack and thrived way ahead of schedule in a sport where speed and size is pretty important. His 2016 was rockier, with injuries and the team’s own bumps along the way with expectations suddenly behind them.
Yet the postseason lights came on, and Renfrow, who tormented Oklahoma and Alabama’s defenses in 2015, was back at it, doing damage (five catches for 50 yards) in a Fiesta Bowl blowout of Ohio State to set up Monday’s title game rematch between the Tigers (13-1) and the Crimson Tide (14-0).
Renfrow’s biggest stumbling block this season was the hand injury that cost him four games. It was the first major missed time of his career outside an ankle costing him the second half of a high school game.
He looked on the bright side of it, saying it afforded the rare chance to watch a game with his family. His father, Tim, said he saw it gnaw at his son when he had to miss the game against Louisville. It also meant others getting more chances in Clemson’s stacked group of receivers.
“You allow somebody else to get those reps, they make their plays too,” his high school coach Doug Illing said. “So it gets a lot more competitive when you open the door like that.”
But Hunter Renfrow returned and for the most part has reasserted himself in the lineup, playing at least 70 percent of the snaps in his team’s final five somewhat competitive games.
There was some talk of his numbers being a bit down, but after the Ohio State win, he’d been targeted on basically the same amount of Clemson’s passes all season (9.1 percent this year to 9.8 last year) despite only playing 10 games.
Renfrow said his own experience this year was different because he felt more confident at the start. It might seem someone who went from walk-on to starter give or take a year would have needed confidence just to pull that off, but even while doing it, he never really knew that he could.
“I don’t know that he was sure,” Tim Renfrow said. “He’d never played and jumped in there because Mike (Williams) got hurt and he got to play some. I think deep down, he thought he could do it, but until you actually do it and get the opportunity to do it, you don’t know.”
Hunter Renfrow landed in the Upstate because of what he thought he could do. He was a triple-option quarterback at Socastee and a proficient one. He had offers from Appalachian State and Wofford, plenty good football schools.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had recruited the Myrtle Beach area, knew Tim Renfrow. He saw Hunter Renfrow as an interesting prospect, and earlier this week pointed out the receiver has plenty of the attributes a coach can measure.
But what one could measure meant a preferred walk-on offer, which Hunter Renfrow, whose family has plenty of Tigers ties, readily accepted.
“He was about 150 pounds coming out of high school,” Swinney said. “Hunter was a guy that a lot of people noticed and would look at and go, ‘Dang, this kid’s a player.’ So he played quarterback. Didn’t play wideout. Played quarterback. You’re like, how do we sign this guy? He’s 150 pounds. You haven’t seen him play wideout.”
The coach said when Hunter Renfrow got on campus, he could only bench press 135 pounds once.
He’s put on weight, up to 180 pounds officially, but still doesn’t look it. At 5-foot-11, he’s all limbs, with long arms and legs for his height. This is apparent when he stands up from his table at the team’s pre-title game media day and was apparent to Illing, who endeavored to convince outsiders Hunter Renfrow could be a player.
“Originally, he just looked like one of the trainers, one of the managers coming in there,” Illing said. “Then they put him in a football uniform and he goes out there and he’s beating some of the 5-star DBs in one-on-one drills. They start paying attention.”
Illing added Hunter Renfrow, who played some defense and a wide range of roles in high school, was versatile enough he could have ended a top-flight defensive back had Clemson wanted him there.
Despite the bumps this season, he and his team find themselves at the same point: separated from a national title by 60 minutes and Alabama. He came up big with a pair of scores and 88 yards in this matchup last year.
He’s come so far, so fast, but even he had to marvel at the chance before the Tigers. Most teams don’t get to play for a title again. Most don’t get to do it against the same opponent.
“You very seldomly get second chances, in football or in life,” Hunter Renfrow said. “You never know if you’re going to get that opportunity.”
Who: Clemson (13-1) vs. Alabama (14-0)
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Line: Alabama by 6 1/2