DENVER (CBS 4)- Former Colorado Buffaloes wide receiver Juwann Winfree like isn’t the first name that comes to mind when thinking about this year’s NFL Draft. His time with the Buffs (he missed all of 2016 with a torn ACL) was hampered by injuries, allowing him only one full season (in 2017).
However, when he was on the field, he showed flashes of the potential that had him rated as a four-star recruit coming out of Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey.
Now, following a senior season in which he caught 28 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns, Winfree has been training for the NFL Draft. He took some time out of his training schedule to speak with CBS Local Sports and give some insight into how he started playing football, what he learned from his struggles at Maryland and what he would bring to the table for an NFL team. Read his story below, in his words, of how he arrived at this point — preparing for a professional NFL career. (Editor’s note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity)
CBS Local Sports: How did you get your start playing football?
“I’ve been playing football for a long time. I started playing organized football when I was nine years old, but I have been playing backyard football with friends since I was about five years old.
There was this big field across the street from my house growing up in Jersey that was probably about 70 yards. We go play pick up games out on that field, taking everything real serious, and that’s where my love for the game started.”
CBS Local Sports: What was it about football that stuck out to you and made you want to pursue it?
“I had a pretty sports-structured background growing up. My dad played basketball overseas, my brother played in high school and one of my cousins played up through college. So, there was a lot of competitiveness in my house, but it was mostly focused on basketball. For me, the competitiveness, the physicality, the thrill of scoring touchdowns and catching the ball is what really drew me in with football. I have always had pretty good hands and was always pretty athletic, with good agility and good footwork, so the thrill of breaking away and scoring touchdowns was a big thing for me.”
CBS Local Sports: At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue football to higher levels in college and, now, on to a professional level?
“Well, my first year was probably my best year ever. That was the most touchdowns I have ever scored in my life. I kept playing through elementary school but in middle school, I started to get interested in other things in addition to my love for football. I started skateboarding and enjoyed it for the same reasons that I liked football. There was a thrill to it. I got pretty good too, jumping down eight stairs and stuff like that. (Laughing) Then, there was a point in seventh grade, when my coach told me that I had to choose one or the other, and I chose football.”
CBS Local Sports: So you choose football, decide to go to Maryland and things aren’t easy for you there. After your freshman season, you decide to withdraw from the school and transfer to Coffeyville Community College. What did you learn from your experience and the struggles at Maryland that helped you grow into who you are now?
“It humbled me. What was important for me and what helped me out a lot was having the mentor and coach that I had in Keenan McCardell. I wouldn’t be the same player or person that I am today without him. I made a lot of dumb mistakes there, and he never gave up on me.
He brought out the confidence in me. I always believed that I could play the game and always thought I could go to the next level, but when I first got to college, I saw how tough it was. I wasn’t starting right away, and a lot of stuff just wasn’t going my way.
The confidence he had in me and the potential he saw in me was huge. He sat me down one day before I left, and we just had a heart-to-heart. He sat me down and told me what he saw in me. He thought that as a freshman I had the potential to be a second-round pick, just based on the things I was doing in practice and in games. He played in the NFL for 17 years, so when he says that, you listen.
He gave me a bunch of stuff to do when I left Maryland. When I got in trouble there, it was the third time that year. I was 18 years old. And he asked me, ‘What route do you want to go down? If you want to be great, do this.’ He gave me a whole list of things to do. Catch 200 passes a day, drills, and a whole bunch of other things that I have kept with me since I left in 2015.”
CBS Local Sports: You mention how tough the transition was for you to Maryland, and that can be tough for a lot of guys, going from highly touted recruits to then maybe not getting the playing time you wanted or expected. Looking back now, how much did it help you to go through that experience and come out on the other side?
“It was big for me. Especially because I played with NFL-quality players. At Maryland we had a safety who went in the second round, we had a lot of All-Big 10 corners. One of our receivers, Stefon Diggs, is now an All-Star in the NFL and he was a big brother and mentor to me. To hear his confidence in me, and coach’s confidence in me, that kind of drove me into the player that I am now.
That was big because this game is all about confidence, it is all about mentality. You have to believe that you can do it and go out there and not take no for an answer. Learning all that I did from Maryland and Coffeyville, the humble hard work it takes to make it in this game, I felt, going to Colorado, that I was the best player on that field. Even against those players, because I give them all the respect, and those boys made me a way better player now than I was when I first stepped on campus.”
CBS Local Sports: And you had plenty of high-quality competition to go against in practice at Colorado. Akhello Witherspoon, Isaiah Oliver, Chidobe Awuzie, and Tedric Thompson all drafted in the first four rounds in the last two years. What was it like facing those guys in practice day in and day out?
“I have never been super fast, but those corners were all really fast guys, so they made me bring out a different aspect of my game in order to beat them. They were all supportive of me, and they all stood up for me. I’m real thankful to have been around those players, because I for sure wouldn’t be the player that I am now, because that’s all big for a players career. Having those types of players around, in terms of development, is huge.
I have actually spoken to Ahkello a lot throughout this process. He was my roommate at Colorado and has been really helpful through this process. Isaiah Oliver too. Both of those guys have been great about talking to me during this whole process.”
CBS Local Sports: It’s great that you have been able to keep in touch with those guys. What’s the biggest piece of advice you have received so far?
“Believe in yourself. I have gotten that big from Phillip Lindsay. He has been with me throughout the draft process. He keeps on top of me all the time, making sure I am staying the right lane. Having a person like him build that confidence in me as well is huge, because you saw the year he had.”
CBS Local Sports: Juwann, one final question before I let you go, for any fans out there wondering what you bring to the table. What would you say you bring to any team that takes you?
“I like to see myself as a complete receiver. You are going to get everything from me. You are going to get a receiver who is going to block, I’m 6’2″ 210 pounds, so I’m a big receiver. You’re going to get a receiver who is going to block and put DBs on their butts. You are not going to see me drop many balls. I may drop one or two the whole year. I’m a receiver who prides myself on catching the ball. I catch 100-200 passes every day, because you have to stand out in some way.
You’re also going to get a very versatile wide receiver who can run every route in the route tree. I worked with Keenan McCardell working on the fundamentals. That is one of the main things that he worked on with us.”