De­fen­sive lines hold big fu­tures

The Sun News (Sunday) - - Sports - BY RALPH D. RUSSO

Qual­ity de­fen­sive line­men are just about the tough­est find in foot­ball.

“Well, I do think that most peo­ple would agree, whether it’s the NFL draft or try­ing to find guys and re­cruit guys when they’re in high school that have the size and ath­leti­cism to be ef­fec­tive in terms of their power, abil­ity to strike, as well as ath­letic enough to pass rush,” Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban said. “I think it’s even more dif­fi­cult now with sort of the spread be­cause there’s more loose plays, plays in space, where it re­quires guys to be able to run and play in space.”

No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clem­son be­lie con­ven­tional wis­dom – which helps ex­plain why the Crim­son Tide and Tigers are play­ing in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off for the fourth straight sea­son and third time in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game.

The 2015 ti­tle game be­tween the Tide and Tigers fea­tured 10 de­fen­sive line­men who were drafted in 2016-18, in­clud­ing six from Alabama. Two more from Clem­son who played in that game – de­fen­sive tackle Chris­tian Wilkins and end Austin Bryant – will be picked in April.

Wilkins and Bryant are part of a group of 10 edge rush­ers and in­te­rior de­fen- sive line­men who will be at Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara, Cal­i­for­nia, for Mon­day night’s na­tional cham­pi­onship game who are likely to be se­lected in the NFL draft this year.

“The fact that we could have three to four, maybe five, first-round picks off two de­fen­sive lines, that just doesn’t hap­pen,” said Matt Miller, a draft an­a­lyst for Bleacher Re­port. “Alabama has three start-

in 2014. That’s 118 years af­ter the Tigers fielded their first team. This might seem con­trary to how so­cial me­dia is re­act­ing to Ren­frow’s fourth Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off ap­pear­ance.

The memes have rolled in, ev­ery­thing from Ren­frow in a black-and-white photo with for­mer Clem­son coach Danny Ford to a mock ESPN graphic that notes Ren­frow “has been a se­nior for the past 17 years.”

“I’ve been hear­ing it all year,” Ren­frow said with a grin. “It’s not any­thing new. My team­mates have given me a bunch of grief for it. But I’m just ready to have fun this last game. Just be able to go out there with my team­mates and en­joy play­ing the game of foot­ball. And en­joy play­ing with my team­mates.”

His ac­tual fi­nal game is Mon­day against Alabama in the na­tional cham­pi­onship. Ren­frow’s for­ever syn­ony­mous with the Crim­son Tide on this stage since catch­ing the win­ning touch­down pass from De­shaun Wat­son in the ti­tle game in Jan­uary 2017.

It was one of his 184 grabs as a Tiger. That’s good for fifth-most in school his­tory. He owns the school record for con­sec­u­tive games with a catch (42) and starts by a re­ceiver (46).

Not bad for a for­mer walk-on.

“He’s go­ing to be one of the leg­ends to leave here be­cause he ob­vi­ously caught the game-win­ning ball in the na­tional cham­pi­onship,” said ju­nior of­fen­sive tackle Sean Pol­lard. “I know that’s his legacy, but he’s Mr. Re­li­able. I know ESPN has deemed him as that. You throw him the ball, he’s gonna catch it — un­less it’s like 10 feet over his head.

“He’s a hard worker, he just goes about his busi­ness and just shows up on the field ev­ery week.”

“Hunter means a whole lot to us,” said sopho­more run­ning back Travis Eti­enne. “He comes in here each and ev­ery day and works hard. He might not be the big­gest, strong­est, most ripped guy here, but he comes here and works his butt off ev­ery day. Just hav­ing a guy like that on our team to mo­ti­vate us and push us, it gives us the be­lief we can do any­thing we want to.”

Ren­frow is listed at 5foot-10, 185 pounds. Chris­tian Wilkins, Clem­son’s All-Amer­i­can de­fen­sive tackle, added “Dad bod” and “re­ced­ing hair­line” to Ren­frow’s scout­ing re­port.

“But it works for him,” Wilkins said. “I guess that’s why he’s so good, he’s so much older than ev­ery­body else.” He laughed.

“I’m just teas­ing,” Wilkins con­tin­ued. “I don’t know why Hunter gets a lot of crap for be­ing here so long. I’m ac­tu­ally a day older than Hunter. But it’s just funny he gets so much crap about it.

Nearly ev­ery Clem­son player who spoke with the me­dia ahead of the team’s de­par­ture for the game ad­mit­ted they’ve en­joyed the re­cent wave of Ren­frow jokes. The mock ESPN graphic was voted most pop­u­lar, but oth­ers were ap­pre­ci­ated.

“I like the meme of him kind of shuf­fling through a whole bunch of dif­fer­ent back­grounds,” said ju­nior line­backer Tre Lamar. “There’s like the Egyp­tian pyra­mids and stuff. I like that one.”

“I like the one that com­pare him to other wide re­ceivers,” said se­nior cen­ter Justin Fal­cinelli. “It’ll be like, ‘This guy did this’ and it’s a pic­ture of Hunter hold­ing a bag of fruit.”

Soon, though, it’ll all end. The memes, the catches, the games. One of the great­est sto­ries in col­lege foot­ball has one fi­nal chap­ter.

“I’ll still be around,” Ren­frow said. “I think I’ll prob­a­bly train (for the NFL Draft) around the Clem­son area. So I don’t know if it will re­ally sink in un­til next year when I’m gone. I’ll still be around my team­mates and stuff like that.

“But hope­fully we can fin­ish it the right way and hold on to that feel­ing a lit­tle longer.”

HUNTER REN­FROW IS FOR­EVER SYN­ONY­MOUS WITH THE CRIM­SON TIDE ON THIS STAGE SINCE CATCH­ING THE GAME WIN­NER IN THE TI­TLE GAME IN 2017.

RICHARD SHIRO AP

Clem­son’s Clelin Fer­rell is part of a de­fen­sive line that lived up to pre­sea­son hype in help­ing the Tigers reach the na­tional cham­pi­onship game.

CHRIS CARL­SON AP

Clem­son's Hunter Ren­frow lis­tens to a ques­tion dur­ing me­dia day Sat­ur­day lead­ing up his fi­nal game Mon­day against Alabama in the na­tional cham­pi­onship.

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