Imani Cross had a much deserved break for a few days during Christmas to re-connect with family in Georgia, even though he was still in football mode as the University of Nebraska freshman running back and North Hall High grad was readying to face his home state University of Georgia in the Capital One Bowl on Tuesday in Orlando, Fla.
His big brother, Izaan, was certainly one of the people he was eager to see since he’s in the exact same boat.
Izaan Cross, a three-year starter at defensive end for Georgia Tech and a Flowery Branch High grad, finished up his senior regular season with 20 tackles (three for a loss) for the Yellow Jackets, and his final college game today in the Sun Bowl against Southern Cal in El Paso, Texas.
Christmas vacation was the first chance for Imani Cross to make it home since moving to Lincoln, Neb., late in the summer.
The advice from the 300-pound lineman to his younger brother, who gained significant playing time as a true freshman running back for the Huskers, has been constant throughout their conversations while in the grind of football season: Be very attentive to every detail of the game and stay on top of work in the classroom.
“Imani seems to be doing a very good job with everything at Nebraska,” said Izaan Cross, who is ranked between No. 35-40 among defensive end prospects for the NFL. “He’s been very conscious of his performance in practice and takes the game very seriously.”
The Cross brothers have grown used to playing on different teams with a three-year age gap, even though the distance between the two standout football players is something new. The only time they played on the same squad was the 2008 Flowery Branch High team that played all the way to the state championship game in Atlanta.
On that team, Cross was one of the senior standouts of the Falcons’ defense, while his younger brother Imani was a freshman who played behind Daniel Drummond, now a Yellow Jackets linebacker, at the running back position.
Today, Izaan Cross is excited to have the opportunity to go against Southern California, a program he grew up admiring during its heyday in the middle of the past decade, even though Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley has been sidelined for his final game with a lingering shoulder injury.
The Georgia Tech lineman said his own college career has been filled with some highs and lows, ranging from winning the ACC Championship during the 2009 season, before the school eventually had to relinquish that title for NCAA violations, all the way to what he calls the lowest moment of his career when he missed the Duke game — the final ACC game of his career — with the flu and a 103-degree fever this season.
He said it was the first time to miss a game since fifth grade.
“I’ve really had a roller-coaster college career,” said Izaan Cross.
Meanwhile, Imani Cross made a fast impression as a true freshman with the Huskers. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound back played in all 13 games and finished fifth on the team in rushing with 324 yards on 55 attempts and seven touchdowns for Nebraska.
He says his main focus as a first-year college player was learning from the guys ahead of him, like senior running back Rex Burkhead and junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, and taking notes on how they maximize performance based on concentration on the practice field, in the film room and on game day.
“I see all the work those guys put into the game and do the same with the way I prepare myself,” Imani Cross said.
Even though he’s a long way from home, the Nebraska running back says he knew what he signed up for before making the long move away from Hall County.
“I love it here at Nebraska,” he said.
Imani Cross says that playing in his first bowl game as college player is quite a thrill. He said there isn’t any extra pressure added by his brother Izaan to beat his arch rival Bulldogs in the Capital One Bowl. Izaan Cross was, however, able to tip his brother off on some of the Georgia linebackers’ tendencies, hoping to give him some of an edge.
“This is a very exciting opportunity to play in a bowl game,” Imani Cross said. “I’m truly blessed.
“I know I couldn’t dream of anything better than to get to play college football at Nebraska.”