A season removed from an ACL tear that would cost him his first year as a Colorado Buffalo, redshirt junior Juwann Winfree was still watching much of the action from the sidelines. He struggled to make up ground behind the starters after his injury, and found himself relegated to a backup role among the vaunted ‘Black Out Boyz’. Winfree had resigned himself to another season of watching and waiting until a concussion knocked Shay Fields from Saturday’s matchup with USC. There, under the bright lights of Folsom Field in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Juwann Winfree finally got his shot.

A year ago, Winfree was rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered in the middle of an impressive fall camp. The Buffs newest JUCO transfer had garnered high praise in just a few weeks of practice, and now his potential breakout season had ended before it began. Rather than emerge as a dangerous offensive weapon, Winfree watched last season’s ‘Rise’ from the sideline.

“That was my first time ever missing a football season in my life,” Winfree said. “So a lot of things were going through my head. I didn’t want the fans to think negatively, to be like, ‘Oh he’s done.’  I just wanted everyone to know that I’d be back and I’d have an impact this year.”

Winfree shakes his head as he looks back on it all. Like so many athletes, he had taken his ability to play for granted. But a year on the bench changed everything – it fostered the drive and work ethic that has helped Winfree set himself apart at CU.

“I definitely have a higher appreciation for the game,” he said. “That was my first time missing a season so I definitely took it to heart. I thought everything was set in stone for me – I was doing good in camp, I felt God. But it probably just wasn’t my time.”

Dog Haus Desktop Ad

It is apparent when Winfree talks about his ACL injury what an emotional hurdle it was for him. He winces as he reflects on 2016 and the time he lost on the field with his teammates.

“You know, football is my love,” Winfree said earnestly. “I love the game and making plays is what I do. The fact that I was out and seeing all my boys making plays and I couldn’t be out there with them, it hurt. ”

Winfree channeled everything into his rehabilitation, returning from his injury with a vengeance. He arrived at fall camp with a newfound appreciation for his role in the offense.

“There were some games where I wanted to shed some tears before the game, just because I couldn’t be out there to help my teammates,” Winfree said. “So I just learned that you can’t take things for granted, and now, every time I’m out there, I try to give 100 percent and be a contributor for my team.”

In the midst of a disappointing offensive season for CU, the Buffs have kept Winfree waiting in the wings. In the shadow of the senior receivers, he had little opportunity to showcase his potential – until a concussion knocked starter Fields from the game against USC. With Fields out, Winfree took over on the outside and immediately showed why he is deserving of a bigger role. In just over a half of play, he racked up 163 yards, the bulk of which came on a pair of 57 and 79-yard touchdown catches – the best performance of any Buffs receiver this season.

“Seeing [Fields] go down was pretty sad for us,” Winfree said. “He’s a senior, he wanted to go out strong so I felt like I had to that in his honor. So I played for him and played for all the seniors. They preached all week how important this game was for them, not having beat USC since we started playing them and the fact that it’s their last game in Folsom, it meant a lot. So I just wanted to play out and make the most of my opportunities with the seniors.”

Winfree’s big night was the highlight of yet another disappointing conference loss for CU, one that will weigh heavily on the team as they continue their hunt for bowl eligibility.

“We wanted this game really bad, we gave our all for it,” Winfree said. “To see it slip like that, it kinda hurts. All it does is prepare us for the future and for more to come because we see where we lack in this game, things that we can do better and missed opportunities and it’s just more motivation. We gotta pick it up for next week when we’re back and just work harder.”

That determination is a part of what makes Winfree so special. His constant strives for improvement and hard work should put him in a position to take over a leadership role for CU next season. For now, he is focused on sending the Buffs out with a win.

“We have to prove that we want to be great and finish the season strong,” Winfree said.

In a year that has been marred by bobbled catches, dropped touchdowns and missed opportunities, Winfree showed what the ‘Black Out Boyz’ of the future could look like. Next season will mark a huge shift offensively as three of the starting receivers graduate and CU ushers in a new wave of talent with Kabion Ento, Laviska Shenault, K.D. Nixon and Winfree set to take over the top spots. After his performance against USC, Winfree is an example of everything the Buffs have to look forward to.

“People have been waiting to see what I can do,” Winfree said. “I have a lot of goals to accomplish, and I’m not going to stop until I accomplish them.”

Sam is a sports writer and photographer from Austin, Texas. She covers the Colorado Buffaloes for BSN Denver and the NFL for SB Nation. Twitter and Instagram: @SamanthaNWeaver