All is well for Imani Cross in his new Midwest digs.
Off the field, the University of Nebraska running back is fitting in well with his classmates. The freshman courses are wrapped up, and he’s feeling positive about his education after a year as a Communication major in Lincoln.
As he expands his mind in the classroom, his role with the Cornhuskers is also on the rise. Once a fourth-string back used primarily for short yardage on third downs and goal-line situations, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound North Hall High graduate is looking at a more important role in Nebraska’s backfield in 2013.
All in all, a good first year away from home.
“I’m very excited and very blessed,” Cross said. “I’m just continuing to learn and taking it day by day in the weight room. (I’m getting) sound conditioning so I can try to be as prepared as I can for the role that’s given to me this year.”
Cross enters the 2013 season as a solid backup in a read option-based Husker running game that ranked eighth in the nation with 253.4 rushing yards per game. He’ll sit behind upcoming senior and 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah in the depth chart, but as the larger back he’s a better fit to serve in a power role, much like former Nebraska standout Rex Burkhead did before he was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in this year’s NFL Draft.
Cross rushed for 324 yards and seven touchdowns on 52 carries as a freshman, and is sure to improve on those numbers with additional playing time in 2013.
If Abdullah happens to suffer any injury setbacks, as he did briefly in March during spring practices, Cross has a solid shot of being named a starter. He handled starting duties while his teammate nursed a tweaked knee.
“That was a great experience,” Cross said. “I had a chance to learn to run plays with the first team, and experience the speed and tempo, and the mentality I’d have to play with.”
It was his first time as his team’s starter since his high school days, when he rushed for 1,698 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at North Hall. His explosive season capped off a stellar career in Hall County that included two years with the Trojans and two at Flowery Branch, where he also reached 1,000 yards as a sophomore.
North Hall coach Bob Christmas could only praise how good his former star looked as a college freshman, especially playing in an important role as a short-yardage back in a Big 10 offense that relies so heavily on strong rushing.
“He is just such a solid young man,” Christmas said. “He has a tremendous work ethic, so his success as Nebraska doesn’t surprise me at all. I have no doubts that he could make it wherever he went, just because of his determination and his maturity.”
It wasn’t until Cross’ signing day in 2012 that Nebraska was revealed to be his next destination. He had previously committed to Tennessee, but withdrew his decision and was left with the Huskers and Kentucky as his finalists.
He chose to become the first Nebraska signee from Georgia in four years, and he couldn’t be happier with his decision.
“I thank God I’m here at Nebraska,” Cross said. “Tennessee and Kentucky are great schools, but I’m happy to be here, and I couldn’t have made a better decision in my mind.”
He played in all 14 games as a freshman, picking up his first college touchdown and longest run of the season in the Huskers’ 42-13 win over Arkansas State. He pounded in a two-yard score early in the fourth quarter, then broke free for a 44-yard scamper late in the game.
He scored another touchdown the following week against Idaho State, then added four more in wins against Penn State and Minnesota later in the season. Nebraska completed the year 10-4 overall, capping it off with a 45-31 loss to Georgia, a school once just down the road from Cross’ Hall County home.
He treated it like it was just any other game.
“It wasn’t so much about Georgia, it was about us,” Cross said. “I was just proud that we got to send out the seniors in a good bowl game. Unfortunately we came up short, but I wasn’t looking at it in that perspective more so than looking at it like planning for the University of Georgia.”
Cross shares his teammates’ vision of a successful 2013 season, which includes a Abdullah, a stout offensive line and one of the nation’s deadliest dual-threat quarterbacks in Taylor Martinez, who compiled more than 3,800 yards and 33 touchdowns as a junior.
He wants his name to be mentioned among his star-studded teammates, but only if it brings a Big 10 title and possibly even bigger implications along with it.
“Everybody’s goal is to pick their role, do it to the best of their ability and do it as a team,” Cross said. “Try to do something bigger than ourselves and shoot for a championship.”