TAMPA, Fla. -- One day before Hunter Renfrow completed his journey from walk-on to improbable national championship game hero, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney described himself in ways that might also apply to his ace slot receiver.
"I always tell everybody, I was a crawl-on," Swinney had said on Sunday when asked about his own playing career as a wide receiver at Alabama. "I was one notch below a walk-on. I crawled on the field out there."
Renfrow crawled on to Clemson, the 150-pound non-scholarship freshman who became a scout team star, then a redshirt freshman breakout player, then an Alabama tormenter year ago in Arizona. Now, he's the owner of a game-winning touchdown in the national championship game, a Clemson hero.
"Never in a million years," Renfrow said when asked whether he could have predicted such a moment. "It's been such a journey for me. It's like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream."
Renfrow caught two touchdowns in last year's 45-40 loss to Alabama. In Monday's 35-31 comeback win, he caught 10 passes for 92 yards and two more touchdowns, including the one that will be remembered forever in college football, and especially at Clemson.
On first-and-goal with six seconds left, trailing by three, Clemson lined up at the two-yard line and decided to have its five-star quarterback throw to its no-star recruit wide receiver. All smiles on the field after the trophy presentation, Renfrow said that all he was thinking about at the time was, "Don't drop it."
He didn't, and Clemson is a national champion because of it, continuing the improbable journey of the 5-foot-11, 180-pound receiver who turned down an Appalachian State scholarship to walk on with the Tigers in 2014, the Myrtle Beach native choosing to follow the crawl-on path that his head coach took as a player at Alabama and try to make it big for his own home state team.
"I heard about him for a year before I ever met him," Clemson co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jeff Scott said on Saturday. "I would say no less than five or six head coaches down there in that area had either called me or texted me about Hunter Renfrow."
Renfrow was a high school quarterback, but when he attended a Clemson camp, Scott put him through receiver drills and found that he was a natural.
"I think he looked like he was in the seventh grade, and he was getting ready to go into the 12th grade," Scott said. "Doing some of the drills we do at our football camp, you could tell, putting him in different positions, his quickness and suddenness was really good. Even though he hadn't played receiver before, some guys are just very natural when you ask them to do something. It's fun. I'm asking him to do something for the very first time, and he does it really well, better than he even realizes."
Better than anyone could have ever realized.
Clemson has achieved its breakthrough with the help of phenomenal recruiting classes that have included blue-chip stars like Watson, wideout Mike Williams and defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. But the coaching staff has also identified and developed the sleeper program fits, the players who have filled out the roster to make it even deeper.
Renfrow has become one of the team's most vital players, a go-to reliable player in big moments who has played far beyond what anyone would have possibly expected when he crawled on at Clemson, just as Swinney did as a player at Alabama.
"We've made a living at Clemson having a few guys like that," Scott said. "Coach Swinney, he was a walk-on at Alabama. Myself, walk-on at Clemson. Hunter just had kind of that 'it' factor."
Twenty-four years ago, Swinney capped his walk-on career at Alabama as a national champion player. Now, Swinney has his first national championship as a coach with the help of a walk-on, now on scholarship, who may be the Clemson player most similar to the head coach.
"I just knew I was going to have to give everything I had," Renfrow said. "I've dreamed about it since I was a kid, all of us, and I couldn't let these seniors go down like we did last year. Just love them, and just appreciative for the opportunity."
The dream is now a reality.