NAPA -- When discussing the Raiders' receiving corps early on in training camp, three names continue to be grouped together.
Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams and ... Hunter Renfrow.
The fifth-round draft pick and College Football Playoff National Championship Game hero might not look the part of NFL slot receiver, but make no mistake, the former walk-on has an uncanny ability to get open against anyone. He proved that during his time at Clemson, and he's shown it early on in training camp as head coach Jon Gruden and the staff have matched him up against veteran Lamarcus Joyner, and Renfrow has held his own.
"It’s tough. It’s a tough job," Gruden said Tuesday about facing Joyner. "I wouldn’t want to see Joyner every day. But he’s made some plays. I’ll let Lamarcus talk about his progress, he would know better than anybody but he’s picked the offense up quickly, doesn’t seem like his legs have slowed down, he’s taken a lot of reps and I like him. He’s got a lot of instincts and naturalness that you have to have to play the position.”
On Day 1 of practice, Renfrow stood tall against Joyner, shedding the veteran defensive back to get open on a number of different routes. It will be an ongoing battle, but it's one that Renfrow is happy to wage.
"Yeah, it’s good," Renfrow said Tuesday of his matchup with Joyner. "Just going against the best. I feel like if I’m able to get open against him I can get open against anyone. So it’s a good gut check every day and just a good competition for me to just be able to go against him and just the confidence if I can beat him I feel like I can beat most corners.
"I feel like it’s gone good. I feel like I had a good fair against him the first day. The last two he may have gotten me. It’s been a constant battle but we’re making each other better each day.“
Slot receiver is a vital position in today's NFL. In the roster overhaul that took place over the offseason, the Raiders brought in veteran receivers Ryan Grant and J.J. Nelson to potentially compete for that spot. But through the first four days of camp, it's been Renfrow that has seemingly taken the control of the role.
Renfrow's appearance has drawn cracks from a number of his teammates, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock. He's been referred to as a "substitute teacher," and Mayock called him "Doogie Howser" when the Raiders drafted him. With a receding hairline that might make you think his day job is fixing computers and not leaving all-world athletes in the dust, Renfrow has surprised a lot of his veteran teammates. But fellow rookie and Clemson teammate Trayvon Mullen has seen this show for quite some time.
"Nah, I’ve seen it for three years," Mullen said of Renfrow's ability to get open. "He’s that guy that’s just going to give his all and to me, he’s going to get open every play just because of how he plays and the fact that he was always slept on.
"He’s really aggressive, he’s quick. If you don’t have good technique you don’t have a chance of winning against him.”
But how is a former walk-on turned fifth-round draft pick getting the best of NFL defensive backs this early on in his career? He's deceptively quick, yes. He's got hands that appear the be covered in glue. He's got a quick twitch and is as smart as they come. That's all true.
Renfrow, though, thinks it has to do with his much-talked-about appearance.
"Maybe just some of what you are talking about," Renfrow said. "Just how I look. I kind of don’t look the part. But really just going out there and getting better every day. I like can’t believe they are paying me to do this. I was going to meetings the other day and I’ve been doing this for 10 years — getting into the playbook and how can I beat that guy and just kind of processing. But they are actually paying us to do that now, so it’s just been fun to me.”
Expectations rarely are this high for a fifth-round draft pick. But Renfrow, like the rest of his fellow rookies -- namely Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram, Josh Jacobs, Maxx Crosby and Mullen -- wasn't brought in to Oakland to be rookies. The Raiders need talented players who can contribute from Day 1 if they plan to turn the ship around quickly in Year 2 under Gruden.
So far, Renfrow appears to fit that bill.
It's early in the 2019 Raiders experiment. But the team was bereft of talent last season and that no longer is the case. A talented rookie class was joined by Brown, Williams, Joyner and Trent Brown. QB Derek Carr now has a number of explosive weapons at his disposal. More than he ever has.
One calls himself Mr. Big Chest and enjoys hot air balloon rides. One is soft-spoken but appears to glide across the field while torching opposing defensive backs. And one looks like "a substitute teacher," who has been tasked with learning as much as he can from the other two receivers his name keeps getting grouped with.
"I was talking to (AB) and Tyrell today about techniques that have been successful for them in the past," Renfrow said. "So I just want to be a sponge and soak up as much information as I can. “
The hairline might be receding and he might not look the part, but Renfrow already has positioned himself to be a major part of an offense that could be one of the most explosive units in the league.