August 22, 2011

Blatchford defies odds in return from injury

At this time one year ago, Justin Blatchford was being told his season, and maybe even his football career, was in jeopardy.

On a routine play during practice in the spring of 2010, a teammate fell into the walk-on defensive back's knee and completely shredded it, tearing his PCL, LCL and lower meniscus.

Nebraska's trainers and his doctors told Blatchford he would be lucky to play football again in a year at the earliest. Turns out he was back in pads in a matter of months.

After some intense rehab and a healing process that went much faster than expected, the Ponca, Neb., native only missed the first two games of the 2010 season, as he returned to his role as a key special teams contributor for the Huskers' win at Washington.

While he said his knee still wasn't quite back to 100 percent when he returned to action, Blatchford fought through it for the rest of the season. Now, he's on track to be Nebraska's starting nickel back.

"When I hurt my knee, things weren't looking really good," Blatchford said. "It was looking like I'd probably be out a year and not knowing if I'd ever be back to full strength. That was real rough. But getting back last year and playing a little bit on special teams helped to kind of spring things forward."

Originally a safety, Blatchford started working at nickel towards the end of last season. Since then, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior has thrived at the position, as he's worked his way onto the first-team nickel and dime defenses.

Blatchford opened the spring splitting the starting nickel reps with senior Lance Thorell and sophomore Ciante Evans. However, his physical style of play has been a perfect fit at the new position, and he's separated himself from the pack over the first two weeks of fall camp.

"He's made a lot of progress," defensive backs coach Corey Raymond said. "I've only seen what I know now, but he's done a great job for us, and I think he's going to continue to do a great job for us."

Though Raymond wasn't around when Blatchford hurt his knee, he said he's been nothing but impressed with Blatchford's work ethic in practice, especially considering all he's had to overcome.

"He's a tough guy," Raymond said. "He's a very tough, smart, heady player, and that's the whole key. He's done a great job of doing that, and he's going to continue to do a great job for us."

The competition for the starting nickel job is certainly still up for grabs, but right now it looks as if Blatchford is the frontrunner. His chances should only get better if senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has miss some time due to injury, which would mean Evans would be needed far more at his natural cornerback spot.

For Blatchford, just being in position to compete every day in practice is an accomplishment in itself considering his long road to recovery.

"It's just been a really, really long process, having them tell me I might be out the whole year and then coming back last year unexpectedly," Blatchford said. "It's just been a long process dealing with all that. Now, I can finally just focus on playing football."

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