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Clutch play puts Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow on NFL's radar

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- On one of his last free days of summer before reporting for Clemson's fall football camp, Hunter Renfrow drives through his old neighborhood and stops his Ford F-150 at the modest, one-story home he grew up in with three brothers and two sisters on Camellia Drive, just three blocks off the Atlantic Ocean. Two large oak trees that once served as goal posts stand 10 feet apart in the front yard. Neighbor Karen Mitchell spots him from next door.

"It's Hunter!" she exclaims, roaring down her front stoop.

Recognized again.

Mitchell knew Renfrow long before there was demand for his cover-photo autograph on a few thousand Sports Illustrateds. But he's back home in Myrtle Beach, so he's on full alert for random recognition. It's one of two places, along with Clemson, where his popularity has ravaged any hope of walk-around anonymity. He'd just as soon go back to the days when only those closest to him knew who he was. But when you catch a pass to give Clemson fans their first national championship in more than a generation, local hero status isn't something you can decline.

There are still pockets of escapes where, still, nobody in the room has any idea who he is. He'll play right along, just for fun, identifying himself as a Clemson senior, an economics major, a nerd -- anything but a football player. Just from appearance, his unassuming demeanor -- together with an unimposing frame (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) and a hairline receding too far for any 22-year-old -- strikes no fear in opponents.

In many ways, it's a Superman-like existence. In one room, he's a red-caped superhero and the center of attention, signing autographs and shaking hands. In the next, if there isn't a Clemson die-hard around to spot him, he's Clark Kent. The difference is, Renfrow doesn't get to decide when to duck into a phone booth and make the switch.

When scouts write their final reports on Renfrow ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft, their challenge will be Rubik's Cube-hard. They'll be asked to explain to their front-office superiors how this smallish former walk-on can consistently beat NFL-bound college cornerbacks for receptions. How a guy whose physique gets him routinely mistaken for all manner of Clemson gridiron periphery - a member of the video staff, or the equipment staff, or a graduate assistant, or the most common misidentification, its kicker -- and yet draw comparisons to a former No. 1 overall draft pick.

"He looks like a banker," said Hartsville (S.C.) High coach Jeff Calabrese, who coached against Renfrow's Socastee High team in two playoff games. "But over 20 years, he and Jadeveon Clowney might be the two best high school players I've ever seen in this state."

* * * * *

SIX SECONDS REMAIN in the 2017 national title game and Clemson, trailing Alabama 31-28, needed just 2 yards to make history. Coach

Dabo Swinney was about to trust a player who dropped his first five practice passes as a freshman to be on the receiving end of the most crucial pass attempt in the football team's 120-year history. Lined up in the slot, where scouts expect him to eventually make his NFL impact, Renfrow flared behind the outside receiver, Artavis Scott, who created a rub play by engaging his man, Marlon Humphrey, and forcing Renfrow's defender, Tony Brown, to play behind the traffic.

Renfrow made an uncontested catch with one tick left on the clock for the title-winning score in Clemson's improbable 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide, the defending national champs who had been tabbed a touchdown favorite. The wide receiver's life would never be the same.

The play was forever emblazoned across Clemson lore -- right down to a GIF loop that sits atop Renfrow's official Clemson player page. There was the SI cover thing. The day after the game, the marquee at his old high school in Socastee read "Hunter Renfrow High," and over in Surfside Beach, just south of Myrtle Beach, Hunter Renfrow Day was declared by mayor Bob Childs. When Clemson took its visit to the White House as national champions, President Donald Trump singled him out by inviting him to the South Lawn dais and saying, "Oh, Hunter, you're so lucky you caught that ball." Renfrow shared in the ensuing laughter, although it didn't take much luck to catch a ball Deshaun Watson put right between his numbers. Cars around Clemson's campus began honking their horns at the sight of him, and requests for selfies and autographs became an inundation.

On this day, back in Myrtle Beach, Renfrow grabs lunch at a local burger joint and the only one who recognizes him is an employee. They share a quick exchange, but the place isn't particularly crowded, and Renfrow is otherwise able to eat in peace. It could have gone another direction. It could have been a circus tent.

"The only thing about it that can get a little annoying is that the national championship from two years ago is all some people want to talk about," Renfrow said. "And I grew up a Clemson fan, so I understand. They just want to hold onto that, and I get it. But I more want to talk about things to come. Sometimes you want to tell people, 'Hey, I'm not done yet.' But you also don't want to be rude."

As signature moments go, this one didn't do Renfrow's abilities much justice. While it certainly was soaked in drama, the play was designed and executed cleanly enough that a 2-yard catch requiring nothing especially athletic of Renfrow became, to some, all he was known for. Heck, a sensible argument can be made that it wasn't even the most critical play he made in the game. Earlier in the second half, he had prevented a game-changing touchdown by making a tackle on a fumble return by Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson.

Truth is, a historic catch doesn't nearly encapsulate Renfrow's resume; he'd caught 76 career passes before that one and has caught 75 since. Nor was it his first touchdown catch in a College Football Playoff game; it was his fifth, the highest total of any receiver in the playoff's four-year history. Consider this for clutch play: of Renfrow's 43 career games, only five have been CFP contests. Yet his CFP production represents a fifth of his career receptions (31 of 152) and a third of his career touchdowns (5 of 15).

But it was the title-winning score that made for storybook stuff. And while Renfrow might prefer the quieter life he used to have, he's also not been afraid to ride the wave. He often signs autographs with an appropriate scripture -- Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all things in Him who strengthens me") -- a sign of his Christian upbringing that also symbolizes the play (Watson, who threw the title-game winner, wore No. 4; Renfrow No. 13). He'll even marry Clemson's Homecoming Queen, longtime girlfriend Camilla Martin, on April 13 next year.

* * * * *

IN THE SUMMER OF 2014, Renfrow arrived at Clemson at 153 pounds, a few lighter than he should have been, thanks to a tonsillectomy that had him on a liquid diet prior to his enrollment. His locker was situated between two current NFL receivers -- the New York Jets' Charone Peake and Tampa Bay's Adam Humphries -- and before he could even step on the field for his first practice, panic set in. Renfrow couldn't open his locker to get his cleats.

"Incoming freshmen, their minds are going 100 miles an hour. For him to come in that first day and not even be able to get into his locker and get his cleats, that had to be a pretty terrible feeling," said Humphries, who eventually became something of a mentor for Renfrow. "So, I just lent him a pair. Most freshmen come in and don't have any gear, and they can be scared or embarrassed to ask the training staff for more equipment because they haven't done anything on the field to ask for more. So, he came to me."

Things didn't go any better that afternoon. Watson and Cole Stoudt fired passes to a star-studded receiving corps, and when it was Renfrow's turn, he dropped the first five throws that came his way. The last one didn't even require him to run a route -- a hitch behind the line of scrimmage that hit him squarely in the hands. Asked who was in coverage, Renfrow revealed the full embarrassment.

"No coverage. It was RVA," he said. "Routes Versus Air."

His development in the weight room had a ground-zero start, as well. Although he had decent lower-body strength, he couldn't bench more than 135 pounds -- the bar, plus a 45-pound plate on each side. Meanwhile, his new teammates were racking two plates per side -- 225 pounds -- as a warmup.

"It was a little discouraging being around all these guys who can bench 225 pounds 20 times like it's nothing," Renfrow said. "But I didn't see how all that bench pressing translated to the field, and I still don't to an extent. I think it helps, but I've seen guys bench press a ton of weight who aren't very good at the game."

Renfrow had been an undersized but highly effective triple-option quarterback for his father at Socastee High. Appalachian State had shown some interest, but he had his heart set on Clemson, and accepted a preferred walk-on opportunity that was driven more by emphatic recommendations from high school coaches around the state than by Renfrow's tape or his performance at Clemson's summer camp.

"He was very, very small. He was explosive, but then you'd meet him and he wasn't impressive just on the eye test," Swinney said. "And as a triple-option quarterback, he wasn't easy to evaluate on film."

* * * * *

MACKENZIE ALEXANDER SERVED as a flashpoint for Renfrow's respect around the program. Regarded as the Tigers' top cornerback, one who would eventually be a second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Alexander's resume entering the spring of 2015 included Freshman All-America honors from the previous fall. Renfrow's resume at the time? Scout Team Player of the Year.

But when Renfrow took the field that spring, having added 12 pounds, none of Clemson's cornerbacks -- Alexander included -- could consistently cover him. Sawyer Jordan, a longtime friend of Renfrow's and a student assistant coach at the time, witnessed some one-on-one confrontations between the two that made a big impression on coaches and players alike.

"Hunter's out there beating Mackensie Alexander in one-on-one reps, and Mackensie is getting upset and talking a lot of trash. He wasn't the type to appreciate a redshirt freshman walk-on beating him for catches," Jordan said. "I couldn't help but get into some banter with the DBs about it. I probably shouldn't have said anything -- I was just a student assistant -- but I couldn't help it."

By all accounts, Alexander wasn't alone.

"He makes everyone look foolish at some point," Swinney said. "Mackensie hated going against him, but he also loved going against him. Mackensie would jump up there and want some more of him because he knew Hunter could challenge him. They had a lot of battles, and Hunter won most of them. And it's not going to be any different at the next level."

By the end of spring drills, Renfrow had worked his way -- at 165 pounds -- into the fringe of Clemson's rotation at wide receiver.

"It became evident very quickly that he wasn't just going to be a scout-teamer," said Clemson wide receivers coach Jeff Scott. "When Coach Swinney would discuss the walk-ons in staff meetings, his name always came up first."

Just before the season began, Swinney made a highly unusual decision. Walk-ons aren't awarded scholarships often, particularly at powerhouse programs like Clemson, and when it happens, the player generally has proven himself on the field for a season or more. Swinney, however, saw something in his young player and put Renfrow on scholarship before he'd ever played a down for the Tigers. As a former walk-on himself at Alabama, Swinney was empathetic with the trials of Renfrow's path. When he awarded Renfrow the full ride, he stood in front of the team at a summer retreat at South Carolina's Lake Keowee and couldn't help but crack a joke at the receiver's expense.

"Hunter's a great example of don't judge a book by its cover, right?" Swinney said to the entire team. "Because he damned sure doesn't look like a football player -- I'm just telling it like it is. But this old boy can ball."

* * * * *

IT CERTAINLY WASN'T RENFROW'S SIZE or strength, or even his speed, that first frustrated Alexander in practice and eventually confounded cornerbacks throughout the ACC. He's made a brilliant college career leveraging an advantage from a single physical trait -- an uncanny ability to change direction without slowing down -- into catch after catch. It's a skill his father possessed as a two-sport athlete at Wofford College. Tim Renfrow still holds Wofford records in career interceptions -- 19, including one against Clemson during the Tigers' 1981 national championship season -- and stolen bases in baseball (84).

The younger Renfrow would use those sharp cuts in baseball long before he carved out college football stardom with them. Coached to leg out a double with what he dismissed as "these big banana turns," Renfrow ran the bases at much more of a right angle.

"The apple didn't fall far," said baseball coach John Daurity, who coached Tim at Wofford and later Hunter at Socastee. "Most guys run the bases like a tractor trailer. Hunter ran them like a Porsche."

As a triple-option quarterback in high school, it was that remarkable change-of-direction skill that opposing coaches say made him nearly impossible to tackle. But the slot-receiver position has manifested the perfect application for it in college. It separates him from defenders on short, sharp-breaking routes that allowed Clemson QBs an easy way to beat blitzes the last four years. It's the skill that compelled Alabama coach Nick Saban, prior to last season's CFP title game, to call Renfrow "a pain in the you know what."

Getting open almost instantly is a primary demand on NFL slot receivers for blitz-beating purposes, and as such, NFL scouts are looking past Renfrow's physical shortcomings.

"He's kind of like [wide receiver Braxton Berrios] from Miami last year," an AFC scout said, referring to the Patriots' sixth-round pick who measures close to Renfrow at 5-foot-9. "You can look at measurables and say a guy like that doesn't have a chance, but with the right team, he could play in the league for a long time. He's got about 12 different releases at the line of scrimmage and he's in the right offense to be spotlighted. I can't put a big grade on him, because grades tie in to how big and fast you are and all that other stuff, but when you just watch him play, you don't doubt that he'll make it."

The three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle, which test agility and change-of-direction skills over speed, will be crucial for Renfrow at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. That's not to suggest the 40-yard dash won't be important as well, but deep speed isn't Renfrow's game. According to Scott, Renfrow's ability to change direction is the best he's ever coached at Clemson, a distinction that includes former first-round picks DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams.

"It's just an unbelievable ability to run full speed, put his foot in the ground and make a cut without having to gather himself," Scott said. "You've just never seen anything quite like it."

Added Swinney: "He wins at the break point of the route. He's a different type of player than Hopkins and Watkins and those guys, but he's that level of a difference-maker. He's going to thrive at the next level."

* * * * *

A SELF-DESCRIBED INTROVERT, Renfrow steers clear of the college party scene. And although he's been a scholarship player since 2015, he still spends his share of time in walk-on circles. Humphries was a Clemson walk-on before making the Buccaneers roster as an undrafted free agent. One of Renfrow's closest friends on the team is walk-on Will Swinney, Dabo's son, who will be in Renfrow's Pawleys Island wedding in the spring. Adrien Dunn, a Tigers graduate assistant, was a walk-on when Renfrow arrived at Clemson and was among the first players to make him feel like a 150-pounder could belong. Renfrow's younger brother, Cole, is a Clemson walk-on, as well.

It's a persona to which he's grown accustomed.

Even after Renfrow first began to establish himself in the Clemson playing rotation, recognition came hard. He was sometimes mistaken for Humphries, who had worn the same No. 13 jersey for four seasons before Renfrow inherited it. Following one of Renfrow's first career receptions in 2015, Clemson's public-address man announced to the crowd: "Humphries with the catch!"

A group of kids rode their bikes past Renfrow's Myrtle Beach home once, and asked Renfrow's father: "Does Adam Humphries live here?"

Fans who mistook him for a kicker over the years, in fact, weren't totally off base -- he was the Tigers' backup punter for two years. "For away games, where you can't travel everyone, I think I still am," Renfrow said.

Nothing has come easily, but everything has come fast.

Renfrow now weighs around 185 pounds, and that bench press max has ballooned. He can press 225 pounds five times now, and has set a goal of 10 for next spring's combine.

* * * * *

The game is called 42. It's a basketball contest Renfrow invented years ago that pits two-on-two pairings in what is primarily a test of three-point shooting. And Renfrow has found a 10-minute window to squeeze in a game.

It doesn't matter that he didn't show up at Socastee High on this day to shoot basketball; he's here to see his father, now Socastee's athletic director. It doesn't matter that he's the only one of four people in the gym who knows the rules; he lays out the basics and gets immediate buy-in. There's no one around to be Renfrow's teammate other than a 47-year-old dressed better for golf than basketball, but no worries. All that matters is that boredom has struck, and when that happens, Renfrow creates competition -- at anything.

He splits two games of 42 with a win and a loss, pumping a fist to punctuate the victory.

"He's been making up games since he was a little kid, just anything to stay busy," Jordan says.

That competitive flame has conspired with Renfrow's other-worldly ability to separate from defenders to mark his rise through the Clemson program. Doug Illing, who took over for Renfrow's father as Socastee's head football coach in 2013, saw it immediately.

"The most humble kid anywhere off the field, but when he put that helmet on and went snap, snap," Illing said, gesturing as though buckling a chinstrap. "All of a sudden, he was an animal."

Mistaking Renfrow for a kicker has always been a surface perception, based purely on his physical appearance. Few roles in high school football absorb more of a beating than triple-option quarterbacks, and college slot receivers take their share of hits, too. Yet Renfrow's toughness and taste for contact is never assumed until it's witnessed.

The two old oak trees on Camellia Drive know better.

Yes, they served as makeshift uprights at times. But Renfrow just as often ran into them, wearing a pair of old shoulder pads, as if they were would-be tacklers. He'd toss footballs high in the air, bounce off those massive oaks, then try to catch the ball before it hit the ground.

Nobody knew who he was. Sometimes, they still don't.

The most playoff-clutch receiver in the nation might never be easy to identify out of uniform.

But defensive backs know this: No. 13 is no kicker.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter @ChaseGoodbread.

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