A year ago, Hunter Renfrow was a ghost on the depth chart, a former 160-pound high school quarterback who joined Clemson without a scholarship.
Renfrow began to emerge during preseason camp. Over the next five months, he vaulted from footnote to foot solider. Playing in every game as a redshirt freshman receiver, he caught 33 passes, scored five touchdowns and stamped an exclamation point on his value to the offense with two touchdown receptions in the College Football Playoff championship game.
Renfrow returned for his sophomore season with a well-defined role on one of the nation’s best offenses. With Deshaun Watson at quarterback, there’s likely not a better passing game in college football.
Fox Sports and Athlon magazine both rated Clemson with the nation’s top group of receivers, with Renfrow one of the primary targets.
It’s all very cool for the young man from Socastee to be the principle slot receiver – the “5” in Clemson’s vernacular – on a team filled with players possessing extraordinary talent and skill.
“One of the greatest fears in life is (not fulfilling) the potential to be good,” Renfrow said. “So we’ve got to actually be good and put in the work every day.”
As recruiting coordinator, Jeff Scott coined the phrase “Wide Receiver U,” one he continues to use as co-offensive coordinator.
Since he followed Dabo Swinney as wide receivers coach, four have been drafted by NFL teams, including Sammy Watkins (2014) and DeAndre Hopkins (2013) in the first round. Three others signed free-agent contracts.
Until recently, the school’s contributions to the pros were notable for linebackers, linemen and defensive backs. After Jerry Butler and Dwight Clark in 1979, and Perry Tuttle two years later, Clemson sent only one significant receiver to the NFL over the next 20 years – James Trapp in 1993.
Nearly a decade later, a cluster of receivers matriculated after Tommy Bowden introduced his version of the spread offense. Rod Gardner (2001), Derrick Hamilton (2004), Airese Currie (2005) and Chansi Stuckey (2007) were drafted off Bowden’s teams.
Swinney, a walk-on receiver at Alabama, brought his boundless passion and drive to Bowden’s staff. Currie and Stuckey were his, as well as several others he helped prepare for brief pro careers.
“That’s my own personal brand,” Swinney said, “That’s my trade, that’s my craft. I take pride in having great players at every position, but one I thing I like to think I’ll never screw up is wide outs.”
Swinney and his staff began pursuing the best receivers in the Southeast. In addition to Hopkins and Watkins, they found Jaron Brown, now in his fourth season with the Arizona Cardinals after signing as a free agent. Adam Humphries will be in his second season after signing as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Both preceded Renfrow as a “5.”
“We’ve been able to take it another step,” Swinney said, “to get the quarterback in the system that I wanted. Then we went out and got ‘Nuk’ Hopkins and those guys. I think we’ve demonstrated an ability to develop all across the board, so it’s easy to sell.”
Swinney’s vision for the offense included talented receivers with a passion for learning and the willingness to subjugate their egos for the good of the team.
Classmate Ray-Ray McCloud, also a five-star recruit, said last season humbled him.
“I came in feeling entitled,” said McCloud. “College was different than I thought it was.”
Primarily a running back in high school, McCloud was beginning to grasp the nuances when he injured a knee in November and missed three games. He finished with 29 receptions for 251 yards and a touchdown.
Deon Cain is back on the depth chart at the “9,” backing up senior Mike Williams, an all-conference performer as a junior who returned from a neck injury sustained as he caught the first touchdown pass of 2015. He and Artavis Scott have been nominated for the Biletnikoff Award, presented to the nation’s top receiver. Scott has caught 169 passes for 1,844 yards and 14 touchdowns in two seasons.
“I feel excited about this group,” he said. “We’ve got everything you need in that room. This year’s going to be exciting.”
Swinney compared Williams’ decision to C.J. Spiller’s return for a senior season.
“He could be the best we’ve had,” he said. “He’s a dynamic player, strong, technically sound. He’s like Deshaun at quarterback, an experienced, gifted veteran.”
The anticipation is that Williams’ presence should create opportunities for them all, including Renfrow, who’s a perfect fit in this blend of potentially high-maintenance personalities because he’s unassuming and takes nothing for granted.
Renfrow continued to push himself through the offseason, working on routes and footwork and blocking. Last season provided a huge boost in confidence, not only to him individually but the entire program, but that was last year.
“The confidence is there,” he said. “But you’ve got to go make plays.”
Renfrow worked on becoming a better teammate and leader.
“We’ve got guys on our team that are willing to follow and willing to lead when their time comes,” he said. “Whenever I get away from that, I don’t play as well. We’re just going to try to put together the best year that Clemson ever has.”
Deep and wide
A look at Clemson’s depth chart at the three wide receiver positions: