When the University at Buffalo announced its 2007 football scholarship recruiting class, the name Justin Winters was not on the list.
Today, the walk-on linebacker from Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Md., is the leading tackler on a UB team that took a 2-3 record into this bye week.
Winters had a season-high 14 tackles, including five solos, in last Saturday's 27-25 loss at Central Michigan. Overall he has 49 tackles, 20 solos.
Off the field, Winters is soft-spoken and modest.
"I'm not quiet on the field, though," said Winters, who is working to earn a scholarship.
The successful use of walk-ons was one of the hallmarks of the University of Nebraska program that UB head coach Turner Gill came from. A successful hit on a nonscholarship athlete offsets the busts that sometimes occur when a scholarship player falls by the wayside or disappoints. Winters is a success story so far.
"We're blessed to have him," Gill said. "He's played very well for us as an outside linebacker on the weak side."
Because of his versatility, Winters could show up in several places in the UB defensive scheme. He's been used both as a pass rusher and in pass coverage.
Last week, he was one of the Bulls who was used as a "spy," responsible for tracking Central Michigan's talented quarterback, Dan LeFevour. Winters stays on the field when the Bulls go to their nickel defense in passing situations.
Replacing departing linebackers Kenny Hutchinson and Kareem Byrom were two priorities for defensive coordinator Jimmy Williams when UB began practice last spring. It didn't take long for Winters to jump into the picture, even though he's undersized, at 5-foot-11, 202 pounds, for the position against Football Bowl Subdivision competition. Most of his experience as a true freshman in 2007 came on special teams.
Once spring ball was over, the question was: could Winters hold the job in the fall season.
Winters answered that early, leading the Bulls with 10 tackles, including two for loss, making a sack and an interception in the opening win over UTEP. He also led the Bulls with 12 tackles in the dramatic win over Temple.
When he arrived at UB, Winters weighed in at around 195 pounds. He says he plays at around 205 now but he's a lot stronger and wiser.
"I know the game a lot better. I can see and recognize things a lot better," he says.
Although he enjoys the physical contact, Winters admits it's no fun taking on 300-pound linemen. But, he adds, "I do what I can do."
Winters became interested in UB because his cousin Kendrick Hawkins, a cornerback from DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., was already a Bull. Williams, a Washington, D.C. native, has good contacts in that area, but Winters was not viewed as a prime prospect. Before UB came along, the only Division I school that seemed interested was Duquesne.
However, one thing jumped out when UB coaches looked at Winters' game videos. "His speed. He can run," Gill said.
Right away, UB saw possibilities but projected him more as a safety than as a linebacker. Gill invited him to walk on to the team, holding out the possibility of a future scholarship.
Now, Winters seems on his way to earning that athletic grant-in-aid.
"It's still in the mix," Gill said, indicating that the decision will depend on Winters continuing to hold up his end both on and off the field.
The loss at Central Michigan, which closed with a UB field goal attempt glancing off the right upright, was tough to take, but Winters said he's already looking ahead to similar challenges facing the Bulls, including next Saturday's home game against Western Michigan and tough conference games against Ohio U., Miami (Ohio), Akron and Bowling Green.
"The bigger the game, that's what I like to play in," Winters said.