TUSCALOOSA — Hunter Renfrow is not Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson’s top target. In fact, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound receiver is sixth on the team with 403 yards and four touchdowns on 34 receptions this season.
However, as No. 1 Alabama prepares for its national championship matchup against No. 2 Clemson on Monday in Tampa, Fla., the Crimson Tide isn’t taking the sophomore receiver lightly.
Just ask Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, he was well introduced to Renfrow during last year’s national championship game. Renfrow torched the Tide in last season’s matchup, tallying a team-high seven receptions for 88 yards and two touchdowns, both scored on Fitzpatrick.
“I didn’t play real good. I had two touchdowns scored on me. I’ve never had that done ever before in my whole life,” Fitzpatrick said, looking back at the game. “I was young. I wasn’t really playing my best game, technique-wise.”
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With Fitzpatrick moving from the Star position to safety earlier this season, the job of covering Renfrow in the slot will fall to Tony Brown. The junior defensive back has started the past six games at Star for Alabama after safety Eddie Jackson suffered a season-ending leg injury, causing Fitzpatrick to move to safety.
After missing the first four games of the season due to a NCAA suspension, Brown is second on the team with two interceptions. During last week’s Peach Bowl victory against No. 4 Washington, he finished with five tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and half a sack. Meanwhile, Renfrow finished with 50 yards on five receptions in the Tigers’ victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Well, (Renfrow) is a tough matchup in the slot. We had a tough time guarding him last year,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “We certainly have to do a better job this year. Tony did a good job in the last game. Late in the game, they had a couple passes they caught on him. But for the most part, he did a really good job of matching the patterns and executing and doing his job and covering well.
“I think it’ll be more challenging because of the balance and the skill level that this team has.”
Of course, even if Brown is able to shut down Renfrow, Watson will have plenty of other options to turn to. Mike Williams leads the Tigers in receiving this season with 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns on 90 receptions. Williams, 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, is one of two big receiving threats for Clemson. The Tigers also feature tight end Jordan Leggett (6-foot-5, 260 pounds), who is second on the team with 641 yards to go with seven touchdowns.
“Last year, they were vertical and I would come back to the line, then he would go out and a new receiver would come in,” Fitzpatrick said of going up against Clemson’s receivers. “He would run vertical, and another dude would come in and I was dying out there. They were all running down the field, trying to get us tired. They’re really good, probably the best we’ve seen all season, receiver-wise. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Despite beating Clemson 45-40 in last year’s championship game, Alabama allowed Watson to pass for 405 yards and four touchdowns, as the Tigers racked up 550 yards against the Tide.
Wednesday, Fitzpatrick said Alabama players still hold a grudge for how they played during the game, claiming that Clemson “didn’t see the real ‘Bama last year.” Monday night, he and the rest of the Tide’s defense will look to show the Tigers the real deal.
“We’re working probably even harder than they are because they’re saying, ‘Oh, we just want to beat them.’” Fitzpatrick said. “We want to dominate them because of how we played last year.”