Sugar Bowl preview: Alabama looks to stop Clemson’s ‘giant-killer,’ Hunter Renfrow
NEW ORLEANS -- It's a play that haunts Alabama's defensive backs nearly a year later.
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Then came Hunter Renfrow and the nightmare-inducing rub route, when Clemson's diminutive former walk-on perfectly timed his inside cut to coincide with Artavis Scott's pick play, effectively blocking Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey into nickleback Tony Brown to free up Renfrow in the slot for the game-winning 2-yard touchdown with 1 second left on the clock in the 35-31 upset last January in Tampa.
"I try not to remember too much (about that final drive), but obviously it didn't go that well," Tide senior corner Anthony Averett said two weeks ago. "They made a lot of big plays, a lot of 50-50 balls they caught. They had a flag, a couple of flags in that drive, but obviously it didn't go our way."
While "pick" plays or "rub" routes -- when one receiver attempts to take out two defenders with a single downfield block to allow a secondary receiver to get open -- are often times considered offensive pass interference, this one wasn't ruled as such.
But while it may be the most memorable play from last year's national title game, it was hardly the only one Renfrow has made the past two times he's faced Alabama's vaunted defense, earning him the designation as a "giant killer" from some fans.
(Facetime call from Hunter ) pic.twitter.com/HAaPvrF69C— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) December 30, 2017
"He does his job. He's not flashy. He's not the biggest guy or the fastest guy. He just does his job, which is just as effective as being a huge 6-4 receiver," Alabama junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said Wednesday. "He catches the ball when he needs to. He runs real nice routes whether they're going vertical or short. He just does his job."
In two national championship games against the Tide, Renfrow has done his job to near-perfection, combining to haul in 17 catches for 180 yards and four touchdowns. That included a career-high 10 receptions for 92 yards and two scores in last season's finale.
"Oh, yeah, you definitely give him the respect (he deserves)," Averett said. "I mean he's definitely a great receiver. He gets the job (done) whenever he plays us. We definitely respect him."
Renfrow enters Monday's College Football Playoff semifinal against fourth-seeded Alabama (11-1) as the Tigers' No. 2 receiver this season with 571 yards on a team-leading 55 receptions and just three touchdowns. That's in comparison to a team-high 659 yards and six scores on 52 receptions from fellow junior Deon Cain.
"They're both different types of receivers. Deon Cain is more of a vertical threat. He runs 9s, posts, verticals and stuff like that," Fitzpatrick said. "Renfrow is more of a third-down, shoot him the ball in the slot, let him get the ball in open space and make people miss. They both do a good job of what they do."
And against Alabama's usually stingy defense, Renfrow has been particularly effective in that job, simply out-scheming and out-playing a Tide secondary that has been among the nation's top units each of the last several years.
"Hunter's just that kind of player," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said earlier this month, according to the Anderson (S.C.) Independent Mail. "As a wide receiver, I think the biggest compliment you can have is to be a guy who, when the other team knows the ball is coming to you and you can still get open. Hunter's done that time and time again. That's what the great wideouts do."
This season, Alabama enters the playoff as the nation's No. 6 passing defense limiting opposing offense to 163.7 passing yards per game, just ahead of Clemson (165.1).
One major difference this season has been the play of Fitzpatrick, Alabama's junior All-American defensive back who has played mostly as the Tide's nickel/star/slot corner, which would likely put him in direct opposition to Renfrow.
Last season, due to a midseason-injury to former safety Eddie Jackson, Fitzpatrick had to move to safety in the second half of the year, thus taking him away from the line of scrimmage.
The Tide suffered another injury to its secondary when senior safety Hootie Jones suffered a knee injury against Auburn, but Alabama's coaches haven't done much shifting of parts, allowing sophomore backup Deionte Thompson to slide in and replace Jones, which in turn allows Fitzpatrick the freedom to man the slot.
But regardless of who ends up covering Renfrow, every member of the Tide secondary knows what it'll take to avoid allowing Clemson's "giant killer" from once again taking over another game against them.
"I think this game just comes down to execution. We just have to execute," Averett said. "We know what they're going to do. We play them a lot. Of course, they'll adjust and do some little different things, just like we will. We probably know what's coming. We just have to execute."
This article is written by Alex Byington from The Decatur Daily, Ala. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.