In the wide receivers room at Clemson, a posted quote from Peyton Manning reads, “I don’t like to play favorites, and I do try to spread the ball around. But there’s an old rule: You throw to the guys that get open in practice.”
Over the past season and now eight games of 2016, Hunter Renfrow has become one of Deshaun Watson’s favorite targets, and he’s done it by embodying that quote.
“That’s who he is,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jeff Scott said on Monday. “Every day at practice, he’s going to get open and he’s going to work hard, so you know what you’re going to get.”
Renfrow wasn’t given a scholarship out of high school, and since walking on to Clemson’s football team in 2014 he has earned everything he has gotten.
After redshirting his first year on campus, Renfrow earned a scholarship in August 2015. He worked his way into the Tigers’ rotation at receiver and then became one of the best stories of Clemson’s historic 2015 season, when he finished fifth on the team with 33 receptions for 492 yards and five touchdowns, most memorably a touchdown in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Oklahoma and two touchdowns in the national championship game against Alabama.
“It’s really amazing what he’s done,” Scott said. “We recruit really well at wide receiver, and for him to be a guy that came in and walked on… He’s played over the top of a lot of over guys in that room, but he’s earned it, and that’s been the biggest thing. He’s earned the respect of his teammates and the opportunity.”
Unlike so many of Clemson’s other receivers, the smallish 5-foot-11, 180-pound Renfrow wasn’t a touted recruit coming out of Socastee High School, and he didn’t have many stars by his name. But he starred in Clemson’s biggest games last season and became a recognized figure in college football through dedication and work ethic.
“Every day, I just try to go out there and get better,” Renfrow said on Tuesday. “I think if we do that every single day, we’ll get better as a team and have a chance to make a run for it.”
Renfrow isn’t immune to the grind of practices and games or the toll that playing college football at its highest level can have on the body and mind.
There are times when he too gets tired or doesn’t feel like pushing through the struggle, but for motivation, he treats every rep like it’s four down and 5.
“For me, I try to treat every play like it’s fourth-and-5,” Renfrow said. “Whenever I get in practice and it’s a grind and I don’t really want to go anymore, I try to treat it like it’s the game on the line, and we have to make that play or it’s game over. So, for me, that’s what I try to do.”
In September, Renfrow suffered a broken hand against Troy that required surgery and forced him to miss four games.
Since returning, Renfrow has caught 11 passes for 105 yards in two games, including a touchdown reception in the first quarter of Clemson’s game at Florida State last Saturday.
Overall, Renfrow is up to 48 receptions, 669 yards and eight touchdowns in his career.
He is on pace to surpass the totals tallied by former Clemson receivers Tyler Grisham and Adam Humphries, two players who also wore the No. 13 jersey and that he is often compared to.
Both of those players went on to play in the NFL, and Renfrow has aspirations of playing at the next level, too.
“That’s been a dream since I was a kid,” Renfrow said. “I definitely need to get bigger and be a bigger factor on special teams, so moving forward that’s kind of what I’m going to attack.”
A testament to Renfrow’s rise from unknown commodity to key contributor was a message he recently received on social media from a walk-on player at Oregon, who sought advice after hearing his story.
“I told him it starts with practice,” Renfrow said, “and have fun with it.”
That’s precisely how it started for Renfrow.
“It definitely puts me in a unique experience,” Renfrow said of his story, “and that goes back to how I practice, knowing that there are guys that wish they had my opportunity.”