TAMPA, Fla. — For Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow, a former preferred walk-on turned championship hero, the outcome of Monday night’s national title game felt surreal and took a while to sink in.
It was almost as if he got knocked out in the third quarter, and what transpired in actuality was all a dream.
Three years after walking on at Clemson and redshirting his freshman season, Clemson’s little man Renfrow was a key catalyst in the Tigers’ knockout of college football giant Alabama.
The skinny 5-foot-11, 180-pounder hauled in a game-high 10 catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns in second-ranked Clemson’s 35-31 victory over No. 1 Alabama at Raymond James Stadium, including the game-winning touchdown reception with just two seconds remaining that gave the Tigers their first national championship in 35 years and prevented the Crimson Tide from accomplishing their fifth title in eight years.
“It’s been such a journey for me,” Renfrow said after the game. “It’s almost like I got knocked out in the third quarter, and this is all a dream.”
In a fourth quarter that saw four lead changes, Renfrow helped provide the last.
Trailing by three points following Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts’ 30-yard touchdown run with 2:07 left in the contest, Clemson’s offense took possession and finished the business it set out to take care of at the beginning of the season.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson led a clutch nine-play, 68-yard drive down the field, highlighted by outstanding catches by Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett that set up the Tigers at the goal line.
After a pass interference penalty moved the ball to the 2-yard line with six seconds left, Watson capped the drive with the touchdown pass to Renfrow on a designed pick-and-pop pass play involving fellow receiver Artavis Scott.
Renfrow lined up on the right side of the formation and leaked into the end zone uncovered with the help of Scott’s subtle pick before catching the throw from Watson. Had the ball fallen incomplete, Clemson would have likely run out of clock and lost the game without having an opportunity to tie it with a field goal.
“I knew on that last play, something we always work on, if ‘Tay just does his job, then Renfrow is going to get into the end zone,” Watson said. “That’s what he did, and we pulled it out.”
Renfrow couldn’t have expected this moment to come as an option-offense quarterback at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C., four years ago. At the time, he had only several offers from smaller programs, along with the offer from Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney to walk on.
Renfrow took a leap of faith and chose the latter, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life.
“I think my faith in God really got me through,” Renfrow said. “Just passing up the money to go to App State and coming to play for a guy like coach Swinney and a quarterback like Deshaun has been special.”
Clemson’s smallest receiver has made a habit of playing his biggest in the biggest games, and he made a name for himself nationally in the national championship game against Alabama last year, hauling in a season-high seven catches for 88 yards two touchdowns.
Under Swinney at Clemson, storybook tales such as Renfrow’s seem more common than at other schools.
“To have a 5-star guy throwing to a no-star guy epitomizes what Coach Swinney is all about,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jeff Scott said.
Renfrow played every single snap for Clemson offensively in the national title game except for one, when Clemson was backed up at its own 1-yard line and called for its jumbo package.
As it turns out, his last snap will be remembered as one of the biggest in Clemson football history.
“I knew I was going to have to give everything I had,” Renfrow said. “I’ve dreamed about it since I was a kid like all of us, and I couldn’t let these seniors go down like we did last year. So, I just love them and just am appreciative of the opportunity.”