LINCOLN — Imani Cross is back at it again.
Another Nebraska football practice has long been over, all but a few of his teammates are long gone, as the sophomore I-back slowly walks off the Hawks Center turf, soaked with sweat but finally satisfied with his day.
The Husker locker room will be thinning out by the time he gets there. Some friends are already showered, dressed and ready for the next thing.
“If everybody's gone, everybody's gone,” Cross says matter-of-factly. “I'll see 'em tomorrow for sure, at the same time.”
This is Cross' world right now. One where NU practices don't end for him when the final air horn blows and the brief position meetings break up and the reporters swarm his teammates.
Cross is going to stay and work on this or that. The quarterback exchange that wasn't smooth enough during an earlier drill. The swing pass that he'd bobbled. The footwork that wasn't quite right.
“Whatever I don't do in practice, I try to make sure I hit on after practice,” Cross said. “Something I didn't do well, I try to make sure I reassure myself that, 'Hey, I can make that move.' ”
The work ethic goes back to his time at North Hall High School in Gainesville, Ga., when Trojans coach Robert Christmas would sometimes tell him enough was enough, that tomorrow was another day.
Cross' attitude and dedication can even make Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown shake his head, no small feat considering the number of players the veteran coach has seen come through the Husker program.
“He's a very conscientious guy, to a point of almost neurotic,” Brown said. “He's really analyzing every little thing.”
One motivation is to prove that he's an all-around back and not just the 225-pound bulldozer people first perceived him to be. But mostly, he said, the hard work stems from the way he was raised by his parents, Tim and Sharon Cross.
“He's got a good mom and dad,” Christmas said. “I think the world of them. They're just a close-knit, strong family with a strong faith, and I think that's a lot to do with it.”
Cross is starting to reap some of the rewards. He made a good first impression last season as a true freshman, running for 324 yards and seven touchdowns. And he opened his sophomore season with a 105-yard, two-touchdown game against Wyoming.
A couple of carries, including his 31-yard score, showed some enhancements to his running style that have been the byproduct of that work. Cross has been so serious about it that he even considered taking some ballet until a class didn't work out.
“I'm trying to improve my flexibility, I'm trying to improve my lateral quickness, so I can make the necessary moves that I need to make in the open field,” Cross said. “It's still things I work on today as well.”
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Christmas watched some highlights from afar Saturday night and was impressed.
“I thought he looked quick,” Christmas said. “He's got the vision and he's got great instincts, so if he gets that speed just a little bit more, he is going to be a real force, without a doubt.”
It reminded Christmas of a scene from a few months ago, when he looked out his office window to see Cross doing speed work on the North Hall field, even though Cross was home only briefly between the end of the spring semester and the start of NU's summer program.
Christmas always noticed a purpose to Cross' work. Even in high school, the running back would lead up to a half-dozen players staying after practice to get something right.
“He's a leader and he likes bringing people along with him,” Christmas said. “To Imani, it didn't matter who it was. It could have been a kid who could never have contributed on a Friday night for us, a ninth-grader or a 10th-grader, but Imani was going to give of himself to make that young man better.”
Different teammates stay at different times now after NU workouts. Brown said all of his I-backs are good at putting in the work, before and after practices.
It's the “culture” that has been developed by I-backs such as Rex Burkhead, Brown said. “Then a kid like (Cross), he comes in here and he just thrives in that environment, and just takes off with it, and actually leads it.”
Brown said he isn't worried about Cross overdoing it with a Saturday game coming because he isn't out there pounding on his body or legs. It's not extra contact or running. It's working his hands or light footwork or something subtle.
But always putting in the time.
One of those spin moves Saturday night? Brown said that came from an offseason of focusing on it.
“Almost everything you see that he does,” Brown said, “is a product of hard work.”
Some might still see Cross as that goal-line or short-yardage back, but showing he can be a better first- and second-down guy is part of the process. Better quickness and explosiveness, he said, just come with understanding the Husker scheme better and making quicker decisions.
The decisions on how to use him, along with junior Ameer Abdullah and freshman Terrell Newby, are out of his hands.
“You gotta ask Coach Brown,” Cross said, smiling. “I don't talk about touches. I just talk about being the best I can be.”
And Cross talks about some of it only because reporters bring it up. He tells you about some teammates in high school who might have tried to pull him another direction only because you ask a follow-up question.
Time is something that needs to be used wisely, is all he says, in a voice and manner that Christmas said oozes maturity beyond his years.
“It was always tough, because sometimes guys don't like to see you work as hard as you can,” Cross said. “It's just a decision that I've made, and I've been taught from my parents that you have to get everything out of what you're doing. I'm not perfect, but I try to do that.
“It's not easy. It's easier to just walk off the field or walk off the court, or close the school books and go to sleep. You just have to make sacrifices.”
Cross finishes an interview, thanks reporters and finally heads to the locker room. He'll be the last one in. Again.
If some of his teammates are gone, they're gone. He'll see them tomorrow. Same time.
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