Cross not taking a backseat

Nebraska junior Imani Cross isn't bowing down to the younger running backs on the roster.

LINCOLN, Neb. - Four running backs, four guys who could start at a lot of Division 1 schools. Nebraska's backfield is loaded this spring and getting Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby, and Adam Taylor all touches this fall could be offensive coordinator Tim Beck's biggest challenge.

"I feel bad for Coach Beck and Coach Brown. I wouldn't want to figure that out," said receiver Kenny Bell. "Obviously you have to feed the guy who's going to be in the Heisman race in my opinion, but if he ever needs a blow I trust all three of them.

"Our stable of backs is terrifying. It's a scary group for defenses. It's so talented. They are a deep group."

The competition between the four backs is high, meaning every carry; every snap in practice holds a little extra weight compared to other positions.

"Even if you do have a bad play, we pick each other up," said Newby. "We play off each other and pick each other up, moving on to the next play. The whole backfield is close."

After 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013, Abdullah is undoubtedly the starter entering 2014. The spring has been about finding his top backup.

Most expected Taylor to be that guy. The redshirt freshman is a former four-star prospect, who rushed for over 2,700 yards his senior year of high school and won Nebraska's offensive scout team player of the year honors his freshman season.

Newby is the home run threat. Often considered one of the fastest guys on the team, when the sophomore gets his hands on the ball in open space, it usually means good things for the offense.

Which leaves Cross. Even after rushing for over 400 yards, with a 5.3 yards per carry average and ten touchdowns in 2013, most figured he would take a backseat to the youngsters.

"He has not," said Bell, who could only shake his head and laugh at the notion. "He's one of the hardest working guys out here. He doesn't prepare himself as a second string guy, he prepares himself as a starter. I think that's tough when you have the best back in the country in my opinion in front of you."

What Bell says is true. It's very rarely Cross isn't the last guy off the field. From the reports of his teammates, the same can be said in the film room.

"I can honestly say he probably studies more than anybody. He's dedicated. What he brings to the field is so much knowledge," said Abdullah. "Imani is really wise beyond his years. He really understands that what he lacks on the field at times, like speed of Terrell or the quickness of Adam, he really brings it in the film room.

"He understands coverage, he understands fronts, he understands rotation, he understands blitz indicators. I know he's going to play at the next level. That is what teams need, somebody they can rely on. You can rely on Imani in any situation."

Last spring much was made when the Georgia high school product was a slimmed down 218 pounds entering the Huskers' 15 total practice sessions. The hope was it would make Cross a better all-around back.

The experiment is over. Cross is back up to 230, saying he wanted to be the best he could be at his normal weight.

"Coming into college, he listened to the hype. ‘You got to get faster.' No, go with what you got. That's what he's doing this spring. He's a bruiser," said Abdullah. "The thing he's really worked on about his game is being quicker and more physical. (sigh with a shake of the head). He's hitting the holes hard. Harder than he ever has before."

The explosion was Cross' number one goal this offseason.

"It's been all about explosion in the weight room," said the junior. "It was phase one of my plan. Phase two is spring ball. Continuing to focus on explosion. Phase three is in May. Box jumps, plyometrics, anything that can improve my quick twitch muscles. And phase four is with the football team and Coach Dobson's program in June and July. Putting everything together."

When Abdullah entertained the option of jumping to the pros this offseason, there might not have been a running back on the roster with more to gain than Cross. He's always played second fiddle and never had the opportunity to be the guy. While he still waits for the chance, he takes it all in stride.

"I thought it was great," said Cross. "I said, let's try to go win a championship…Positivity is something that feeds me. Ameer is a positive guy and I want to be one to. I want to encourage competition. I think it makes me a better player and I think I make him a better player."

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