INDIANAPOLIS – Hunter Renfrow knows how to win. The Raiders slot receiver had plenty of experience with that at Clemson, both on the scoreboard and in the pattern. The Tigers were a juggernaut during his time in orange and purple, and he was a vital reason why thanks to clutch play and an ability to work his way open.
Again, Hunter Renfrow knows how to win. Often, though, using less conventional ways.
"You can look around and see that I'm not the big guy in here," Renfrow told NBC Sports Bay Area after Friday's practice. "I'm sure not the fastest. I create advantages by outthinking the opposition and understanding football."
That's how he rose from walk-on scout team player to Clemson legend, and that's how he plans to excel at this NFL level.
Renfrow's off to a ho-hum start, with nine catches for 71 yards on 13 targets, averaging 7.9 yards per reception. His efficiency and yards after the catch – right now it's a too-low 2.9 YAC average -- will increase with experience.
Let's not forget his NFL career is just three games old, with plenty of hard work ahead adjusting to the professional game.
"I played a lot of college ball and felt like I really understood college defenses," Renfrow said. "NFL defenses are just different. They're a lot more condensed. In college, everything's so spread out. There's a formula to handle those defenses. In the NFL, there are tight splits and you're learning new ways to create separation beyond just beating leverage."
Renfrow welcomes the opportunity to hit the books. He's in his element cramming every practice week, trying to take what he learned the previous game and build a foundation of knowledge and techniques to beat defensive backs most always bigger, faster and stronger.
Progress is being made in subtle ways that coaches can see on tape.
"It's not easy for a rookie at any position, but we're happy with where he's at," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said, "and, certainly, we are looking to get more production out of him as well."
Renfrow beat Ryan Grant outright to win the starting slot receiver gig, a position he manned almost exclusively at Clemson. Teammates marveled at his excellent hands and savvy routes, even against top slot cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, despite lacking elite athleticism.
"He's doing well," top receiver Tyrell Williams said. "He makes crazy catches, sometimes ones you're surprised he just made. Seeing him do that has been awesome."
An instant impact is expected despite his fifth-round draft status, especially with the receiver position struggling after Antonio Brown's ill-timed departure.
Renfrow's adjustment period takes time and tinkering, to find ways to steal extra space in routes and the production required to move the chains. He's not being asked to burn cornerbacks deep downfield. His role as accent piece is important, especially on third-down-and-manageable.
Six of his nine catches have gone for first downs despite low yards per reception, fulfilling his job as first-down converter. Those moments, and others winning routes that didn't produce a target, have shown Renfrow he can compete and produce.
"It reminds me of playing on the Clemson scout team my freshman year, going against the best defense in the country every practice," Renfrow said. "There was a realization that, if I could get open against them, I could get open against anybody. Going against NFL defenses now, I've learned that I can create separation and make plays. I see that by doing it, and by learning what works at this level and what doesn't."
That's a process, once that takes time. Renfrow's gaining confidence from it nonetheless, while learning on the job for the Silver and Black.
"I'm light years ahead of where I was three weeks ago, just from seeing defenses and recognizing coverages," Renfrow said. "Now it's is not, ‘what do I have on this play?' and more of ‘how will I execute this play with the coverage their giving me, and how can I attack the defender?' It's those little things you get better at the more you learn and the more you study."