Sam Renner tried to avoid his coach.
Five hours before the Gophers kicked off against Nebraska last Saturday, the defensive tackle was antsy in the team hotel in Edina. So he went for some gym time, a little half-mile walk on the treadmill, some light body weight work and yoga.
Only problem: A glass wall separates the workout room from the pool, where P.J. Fleck was swimming with his kids.
“I didn’t really want to make eye contact with him because I didn’t know if he would approve of that or not,” Renner said. “But anyway, he didn’t say anything. I think he approved of it after the performance.”
Yeah, Renner might have a new pregame routine, considering he posted four tackles, two pass breakups and a sack for a loss of 10 yards in the Gophers’ 34-7 win. It was the best game of the Maple Grove native’s career.
Fleck called Renner the “unsung hero of the defense” after the game, someone who can anchor the line at nose guard, tackle or end and doesn’t let his slightly undersized 275-pound frame inhibit him.
“If there’s one guy I want with me if I’m walking to a place that maybe I shouldn’t be walking at times, I want Sam Renner right next to me,” Fleck said. “… He’s the guy you want with you when there’s crisis, when there’s chaos.”
Renner redshirted his first season coming off back-to-back knee injuries and did not play at all the next year. He made it to special teams as a sophomore, earned a scholarship and defensive playing time as a junior. And now as a senior, he’s not only a starter but an impact player.
The Nebraska game had more significant meaning for Renner beyond just his stat line. His graduation party after high school was Nebraska-themed because he’d made contingency plans to go to school in Lincoln. He had already committed to walk on with the Gophers, but they had wait-listed him.
When Minnesota finally accepted him one week before summer workouts began, it altered the course of his destiny. He very well could have been in the stands Saturday wearing red and cheering on his alma mater. Instead, he played on the field in maroon and gold.
“Guys like Sam Renner are what college football is all about,” linebacker and Burnsville native Kamal Martin said. “Coming in to his hometown school as a walk-on, earning a scholarship and now making plays on the big stage is just something that’s so incredible. And you know a lot of guys wish for that in the state of Minnesota.”
Renner, though, said he’s not the first or the last to accomplish that, adding he learned a lot from his former roommate and current NFL linebacker Blake Cashman about how to work from unnoticed walk-on to impact player.
After a breakout performance against Nebraska, reuniting with Cashman in the big leagues doesn’t seem so improbable.
“I was just talking to my mom about it last night,” Renner said Tuesday. “… If you would have looked back five years ago, that was not the goal.”
Not that Renner will make any changes because of that. The walk-on mentality of being bottom of the depth chart with no expectations never leaves, and he’ll always feel the urge to prove himself.
Sometimes, that means advocating for himself when no one else will. While injuries and wait lists didn’t deter Renner from playing football, he did come to another crossroads ahead of his junior season spring practices. He had graduated in three years with his applied economics degree, and he wanted to play, knew he was capable. But would the Gophers — or maybe another program — give him the opportunity?
So he walked into Fleck’s office, looked him straight in the eye, and told his coach, “I want a shot.”
Fleck gave him his chance. But Renner turned it into much more.