CLEMSON, S.C. — When he watches it now, the perfectly executed moment that will follow him wherever he goes and as long as he lives in the state of South Carolina, all Hunter Renfrow sees are the baked-out fields and the May heat and the hundreds of times he ran the very same route that eventually won Clemson a national championship.
“It’s kinda weird,” Renfrow said this week, “but I see practice, I see springtime, going against (Clemson linebacker) Dorian O’Daniel every day. It's me versus him and it's ‘Crush’ and I have to get a slow release because he’s getting jammed on the outside. That's what I see.”
“Crush,” of course, is the name that will forever be associated with Clemson 35, Alabama 31 on that mild January night in Tampa when the Tigers’ offensive coaching staff called one of their bread-and-butter plays one last time for the 2016 season.
Though you could point to dozens of moments over the previous four hours that were just as crucial in lifting Clemson to its first national title since 1981, it was Renfrow sprinting from the slot straight to the goal line, then breaking free to his right thanks to a little traffic created by teammate Artavis Scott that won the game with just a second remaining.
Everything about that play was perfect: the call, the execution of rubbing the defender without committing a penalty, the quick sprint-and-throw from Deshaun Watson and the catch, which required Renfrow to avoid tripping over Scott’s leg. So perfect, in fact, you might think Clemson would retire that play to college football history and never run it again.
The Tigers, it turns out, aren't removing “Crush” from their playbook. You’ll probably see it again this season. But much like their entire team, keeping it relevant and fresh will require a delicate dance between evolving and staying true to their identity.
“It actually was the first touchdown of the 2016 season in the spring game going to the left, with a different formation, different presentation but essentially the same route combination,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “So it started the season and ironically it ended the season. We run it a lot. That’s why our guys had confidence in it.”
But in so many important ways, this is a season of change for Clemson.
As everyone knows, Watson is gone. A spectacular new football operations building has arrived with a big trophy sitting in the lobby. And for the first time in his tenure, Dabo Swinney can no longer be taken at face value when he grumbles about a lack of respect.
Clemson has arrived in every way possible: On the field, with their facilities, in their recruiting of top-level prospects. They are now one of the handful of programs that is expected to be in the mix for the College Football Playoff year in and year out no matter which players exit the roster for the NFL.
That comes with an entirely different set of first-world problems — let’s see how fans are feeling, for instance, if Clemson is 1-2 after playing Auburn and Louisville in September — but problems nonetheless. And one of the most interesting is whether Clemson can remain the same while being different in so many fundamental ways. In that sense, “Crush” is a proxy for the entire program.
“We just have to run it better than we did last year,” Renfrow said. “It's going to be tough. Everyone in the world is going to be watching for it and all the refs are going to be ready to call it, but we’re still going to run it.”
In the end, it may be as simple for Clemson as who is going to run it, which is still very much in question. As everyone knows, the best quarterback in school history is gone. Nobody outside Clemson's new football palace has seen enough of Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson or Zerrick Cooper to have an informed opinion about who should replace Watson or how any of them will translate to real games.
Still, the Tigers are No. 5 in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll and it's easy to figure out why. By now, we feel like we know Clemson. We’ve seen six straight seasons of 10 or more wins. We’ve seen defensive coordinator Brent Venables replace studs in the front seven year after year. We’ve seen a playbook full of gems like Crush.
But so has everyone else. And just like Alabama has become a better program by evolving under Nick Saban, who eventually embraced offensive concepts he once denounced, Clemson will have to do the same.
“You have to study yourself and know your tendencies,” Elliott said. “Not just with that play but with the entire playbook. You’re going to have your base concepts and figure out ways to protect your base concepts … but Deshaun taught us a valuable lesson in that you have to build the system around the quarterback first. Each QB is going to have their own flavor and then within the package you basically have plays that kinda fit all the different personalities. But there are core fundamentals of our offense we have to run.”
Whatever new concepts Clemson incorporates for its quarterback this season, it will still have Crush, it will still have Renfrow and it will still have the process that allowed the Tigers to execute perfectly when everything was on the line.
“You work six months out of the year to get one play right, and that's why the little things lead to the big things,” Renfrow said. “It's something that will stay with me forever, but I'm trying to make some new memories.”