NEW ORLEANS – Jeff Scott had heard the hype.
High school coaches had raved about the wide receiver from Myrtle Beach. “You have to see this kid,” they implored.
Finally, the summer before his senior year, the player showed up at a camp at Clemson. Scott, the Tigers’ co-offensive coordinator, got to see what the buzz was all about.
“I was so disappointed,” Scott confessed Friday at a pre-Sugar Bowl news conference.
There, finally, was Hunter Renfrow. All 5-foot-10 and 168 pounds of him.
Clemson was building a program with guys like future National Football League star wideouts like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. All of them stand 6-1 and weighed a solid 210 pounds.
Clemson declined to offer a scholarship to the two-star prospect. Undaunted, Renfrow walked on, his family paying his way. He worked himself into the starting lineup and played himself into a scholarship award.
Alabama never saw him coming either.
Renfrow had filled out to 180 pounds by the time he played against the Crimson Tide in the national championship game two seasons ago as a redshirt freshman. He burned an Alabama defense littered with five-star recruits and future NFL first-round draft picks for 88 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions.
UA should have been warned. But a year later, in a national title rematch, there was Renfrow grabbing 10 receptions for 92 yards and two more scores, including the game-winner with just a second remaining on the game clock.
The undersized, mostly-unwanted kid from Myrtle Beach has, over the course of those two games, grown into national prominence. In some circles, he’s known as the Bama Killer.
“It’s funny to me, because I know I’m not,” he said. “ I know that it’s the entire team it takes to beat a team like Alabama. But it’s cool.”
Tony Elliott, Clemson’s other co-offensive coordinator, wasn’t sure when he first saw Renfrow on the practice field, had this thought: “Is this guy going to survive?”
Instead, he thrived. He did it with guile, awareness, work ethic and a pair of reliable hands.
“Just his knack for the game, you knew he’d have a chance to compete,” Elliott said. “His attention to detail is unbelievable. He’s got a coach’s mind, grew up in a coaching household.”
It was also a big household. Renfrow had to fight for every opportunity.
“I have five siblings and 60-something first cousins on my dad’s side,” he said. “So those Thanksgiving games, those Christmas games when you’re in the front yard playing, you don’t get pass interference calls there so you’ve got to get open regardless and maybe the odds are stacked against you. You’ve got to go win anyway.”
He also does it with technique. Scott says Renfrow runs with a forward lean, very low to the ground, which enables him to make sharper breaks on pass routes.
“Maybe your typical receiver plays a little higher, it takes them a little longer to change direction,” Scott said. “With Hunter, he can literally be running full speed and make a cut, a 90-degree cut, which is very rare and is probably one of the biggest parts of his game that allows him to get open.”
Renfrow knows Alabama’s defense will be focused on him this time around. There’s no way the Crimson Tide can ignore him. He’s comfortable with his game, and with the profile that his previous success against Alabama has brought.
But he’s not going to rest on those accomplishments.
“Obviously I gain confidence from having success against them, but I don’t want to think that last year’s touchdowns are going to win for us this year,” he said. “I don’t want to think that the success from the previous games will have any effect on this game.
“Hopefully those aren’t my best times behind me. I hope there’s more to come.”
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.