During the past three miserable episodes of the University of Miami falling to the University of Virginia in football, one current Hurricane walked away smiling each time.
That young man: Justin Renfrow, a Virginia Cavalier for four years before earning his sociology degree and transferring to Miami in August as a graduate student who longed for coaches to appreciate what he could offer in his final year of eligibility.
On Saturday, defensive tackle Renfrow will celebrate his 24th birthday on Senior Day, lining up at Sun Life Stadium against the players with whom he grew into manhood.
He has never been as happy.
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“I don’t have anything against any of my old teammates,” Renfrow said Tuesday of the Cavaliers (2-8, 0-6 Atlantic Coast Conference). “I love all the guys. Most of my problems were with the coaching staff. Even throughout the season I’ve gotten a lot of encouraging texts from my [former] teammates telling me, ‘Keep ballin!’ They’re happy for me.”
At Miami (7-3, 3-3), where coaches were desperate for defensive linemen, Renfrow —as well as fellow graduate transfer David Gilbert —has filled a void that has left coach Al Golden forever grateful.
“He has bailed us out incredibly,” Golden said of Renfrow, who will play some defensive end Saturday. “It’s well documented what we went through in recruiting last year. So to be able to have him and Gilbert come has been huge for us.
“Justin is a very inquisitive kid, very bright kid. He has brought some maturity, not just physical but mental maturity. To be honest with you, whatever ways they parted on, we’ve really never talked about it. It’s always been about what he’s going to do to help us and getting a graduate degree at Miami.”
NCAA rules allow student-athletes who have already earned their college degrees to transfer to another Football Bowl Subdivision school without sitting out the customary year.
As a Cavalier, Renfrow redshirted his first season in 2009. He played in 22 games — including last year’s against Miami — without a start during 2010, ’11 and ’12. He finished his Virginia career with 18 tackles and a pass breakup.
As a Hurricane, the 6-6, 310-pound lineman has played in all 10 games, starting the past four. He has 29 tackles, two pass breakups and forced a fumble against Georgia Tech.
Renfrow said he reached out to UM’s coaching staff before the transfer, because he knew Golden and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio from when they coached at Temple and recruited him out of the prestigious William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia — the alma mater of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“The best part of being here is the fairness of the coaches,” Renfrow said. “They give you opportunities and have faith in the guys. I came here for a better opportunity to win and to be treated fairly on the field.”
When asked why he didn’t think he was treated fairly at Virginia, Renfrow said, “We can just let my play and my stats this year speak for that. Just compare what I’ve done this year and what they allowed me to do there.”
Renfrow’s former roommate at Virginia is Anthony Harris, who is tied for No.1 in the nation with FAU’s D’Joun Smith. Each has seven interceptions.
“It’ll be good to see him,” said Renfrow, who added that he has returned his former teammates’ encouragement because the Cavaliers have had a tough season. “They’ve been going through struggles and I’ve been talking to them. There are no hard feelings against my teammates. There’s still a connection there.”
Renfrow characterized the past three Miami-Virginia games — 24-19, 28-21 and 41-40 Virginia victories — as “tight games” that came down to “who made the last play.”
Last year, the Cavaliers scored on a 10-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left.
“I thought, ‘Man, we were lucky,’”’ Renfrow said, “especially when we went in the next day and watched the defensive film. They destroyed us in the run game.”
Now Renfrow hopes his team wins again Saturday, so he can walk out not only with a smile, but with a 4-0 record in the series.
“It’s great to be a Hurricane,” he said.