Go back behind the curtain in early August, back when one of the offseason topics of discussion among fans was whether Imani Cross could be more than a short-yardage running back.
His position coach, Ron Brown, already knew the answer. But if any doubts remained among anyone inside the program's walls, Cross was about to dismiss them.
It was a scrimmage. Cross got the carry. A defender locked in for a sure tackle. All he'd tackle is air.
Cross unveiled a spin move — similar to the one he pulled on a fancy-footwork touchdown run a few weeks later on opening night — and danced free.
Brown has coached at Nebraska 23 seasons. He's seen plenty of nifty runs. But he remembers his reaction to that particular one.
It is really quite something to see a 227-pound man pirouette on a football field. Pirouette seems the proper word, too.
Cross contemplated taking ballet classes this year as a way to improve his footwork.
The scheduling didn’t work out, but the fact he was pursuing the idea is just another example of what is fast becoming the book on Cross. The player who is usually the last Husker off the practice field each day is forever looking into things that might improve his game.
"I'd be in the tights and everything,” Cross said. “Doing spins and all that."
Judging by his performance in last Saturday’s 37-34 win against Wyoming, Cross has a pretty good handle on the spins.
His 31-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter featured not one but two spin moves on his way to the end zone.
A surprised crowd roared its approval. Brown just thought about how the sophomore’s offseason preparation had paid off.
“He was 'Dancing with the Stars' the other night,” the coach said. “He’s the epitome of hard work.”
By game’s end, Cross had career highs in carries (13) and yards (105), joining Ameer Abdullah (125 yards, 19 carries) in surpassing the century mark. True freshman Terrell Newby added 76 yards on 15 rushes.
Two days after that performance, a couple of reporters mentioned how satisfied Cross must have been.
“You guys keep using the word satisfying,” Cross said. “I’m never satisfied. I want to get that clear. I liked it. It’s something I do work on. The spin, I do work on it. But I’m never satisfied. There’s a lot more spins I could have done to get open.”
Another word Cross will not use is “frustrated.” Does he get frustrated when some try to typecast him as a short-yardage or goal-line back?
No, he does not.
“I like being a goal-line back. I like being a short-yardage back. But I also like being a first- and second-down back,” Cross said. “So, we’ve got the third downs. Now I have to work toward the first and second downs.”
A strong work ethic was instilled by his parents back in Gainesville, Ga.
Their reaction to his performance last week was just as he expected: proud, but also even-keel.
“We don’t get too high, get too low. ‘Pretty good game, pretty good runs. Now, let’s try to make them really good the next day.’”
Cross isn’t the only athlete in the family. His “little” brother is 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds. He’s 17. Basketball is his game.
Different body types for the Cross boys. Same work ethic.
The 6-1 running back was the last person on the practice field back in high school, too.
He’s become used to being the last one in the locker room after practice, and sometimes the only one.
“Time is something that needs to be used wisely, so I just try to use my time wisely,” he said. “If everybody is gone, everybody’s gone. I’ll see them tomorrow at the same time.”
Cross said he visualizes game situations when he’s out there alone, practicing movements he might need under different circumstances.
To him, it’s no different than a basketball player who stays late to work on free throws.
“You practice those movements over and over again, your brain gets used to it,” Cross said.
He may not have blazing speed, but Brown said he has a “sneaky quickness.”
Combine it with good footwork and strength, and some defenders want little to do with it.
“When he goes into a hole, big and strong as he is, and he gives you a little bit of (a shake), it’s a killer, because he’ll pull your arm right out of the socket,” Brown said. “You don’t get clean shots on Imani.”
Brown knew Cross had the right mentality when the back arrived on campus.
“One of the first things he wanted to do when he got here was talk to Rex Burkhead.”
If you don’t come ready to work as a Nebraska running back, you probably won’t survive in the running backs room, Brown says.
He points out that between this year’s running backs and fullbacks, four have the possibility to be the team's lifter of the year, an award Abdullah won last winter.
And, sure enough, Cross had company on the field after practice both Monday and Tuesday.
Abdullah, known for being ready to outwork anybody, was out there with him.
“They’re pushing each other,” Brown said. “It’s a thriving culture that way. There’s just no laziness. Anybody in that room that has a lazy spirit feels uncomfortable. They don’t want to be around it very long.”
Players such as Cross relish that culture. It makes him stay late, working on that next spin move. And if an empty locker room greets him, no worries.
Competition is fuel.
Said Brown: "It just makes him want more and more and more."