Yes, a few Nebraska football fans have asked Justin Blatchford for his autograph.
He obliges, and then waits for that awkward moment when the fan looks at the signature with a bit of disappointment.
“They’re kind of surprised when they get it,” Blatchford said, smiling.
Those people were, in most cases, expecting an autograph from Taylor Martinez, for that’s who Blatchford, a former walk-on defensive back, somewhat resembles.
And no, Blatchford has never signed Martinez’s name.
“I wouldn’t want to do that,” he said.
Besides, Blatchford is starting to make a name for himself on Nebraska’s defense.
As big as Martinez was in the fourth quarter of the Huskers’ 28-24 come-from-behind victory Saturday at Michigan State, the quarterback may not have had his opportunities had it not been for a key play from Blatchford.
Playing dime back, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Blatchford was in coverage against tight end Dion Sims — all 6-5, 285 pounds of him. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell delivered a third-and-10 pass to Sims that was on target, but Blatchford provided blanket coverage, forcing an incompletion with less than six minutes remaining.
“He’s a really good tight end,” Blatchford said. “Obviously, he had quite a bit of a size advantage on me. That was a great challenge for me, and a great opportunity for me to go out and try to cover him up. He’s been very good this whole year.”
A week after facing one of the Big Ten’s biggest tight ends, Blatchford could play a key role Saturday against a Penn State offense that thrives on using the tight end. Penn State leads the nation with 66 receptions by tight ends, 31 percent of the Nittany Lions’ receptions.
Pass coverage isn’t Blatchford’s sole responsibility, though. He also must play the run, and proved against Michigan State he’s dependable there, too.
On his very first play of the game, in the second quarter, Blatchford made contact on running back Le’Veon Bell on a third-and-2 play. He didn’t get credit for the tackle, as teammates Will Compton and P.J. Smith brought down Bell, but Blatchford’s hit helped prevent Michigan State from moving the chains.
“I just hit him in the hole there,” Blatchford said, “and everyone else kind of rallied behind me.”
Blatchford, from Ponca, has made a living on special teams, where he’s been playing since his freshman season.
Now he’s seeing increased snaps on defense because he’s consistent, understands the system, is in the right place and is making plays, secondary coach Terry Joseph said.
“He’s been dependable and doing it the way we want him to do it,” Joseph said. “We like where he’s at right now, and hopefully these last few weeks he can continue for us.”
Blatchford said he can’t pinpoint any one area he’s improved in practice, other than in the film room, where he’s been spending more time studying. Otherwise, he’s preparing as though he’s going to start.
“He does it the right way, whether it’s the fundamentals or the details of the defense,” Joseph said. “He’s a guy who puts in a lot of extra time studying. He’s always up here in our offices watching tape and wanting to get more knowledge. It’s paying off for him.”
Blatchford earned a scholarship after fall camp, and now aims to reclaim the Blackshirt he first earned last season.
“He’s a hell of a guy,” Smith said. “He’s a smart kid. He does his job. Coach asks him to do something, he’s going to do it.
“He’s a leader and he works his tail off every single day.”