There is no fault assigned in being intrigued by the mystery man yet to make a bad cut or fumble a pitch or make a crowd groan. That, quite naturally, comes with spring and the hope that surrounds a man with a blank slate.
And this year’s Husker running back stepping out from the shadows — 6-foot-2, 210-pound Adam Taylor — does so with the kind of sterling high school resume and scout-team praises to be worthy of serious attention.
But in that fight to be the next-best option behind Ameer Abdullah, the eyes should not stray far from those coming back for second and third helpings. Junior Imani Cross, and sophomore Terrell Newby arrive to this spring-ball scene not lacking an ounce in motivation.
It might be said there is an advantage that comes in having taken a stomach punch or two without backing away. It might also be said there is something gained in the experience that comes with having been through a position competition like this before.
“It’s a thing where you got five guys on a track, but you don’t look around at the guys who are running next to you,” Cross said. “You look at the finish line. And that’s kind of how I take it. I look at the finish line. Not so much, ‘I got a guy here, a guy there.’ Because once you start looking around, that’s when you tend to lose the race.”
A year ago at this time, Cross sported a new look, trimming his frame, seeming to gain a half-step in preseason practices.
This year, Cross still appears light on his feet, but he’s bulked up again, carrying 230 pounds with his 6-foot-1 size.
He seems confident that is the way to go, saying: “Last spring, I lost that weight down to 219 and all that crap. But this year I’m 230. That’s what I wanted. I want to be the best I can be at 230.”
Cross isn’t the only one who has added some pounds.
The 5-10 Newby arrived to Lincoln weighing about 185 as a true freshman. Now he says he’s playing at 195.
“I think I’ve gotten a little faster since I’ve been here, also,” he said.
Also an option as a returner, Newby finished his freshman campaign having carried the ball 54 times for 298 yards, an average of 5.5 yards each tote.
His involvement in the offense trailed off after the nonconference season, when he had 36 of his carries, including a season-high 15 rushes for 76 yards in the opener against Wyoming.
Redshirting was never on the table for Newby. “No, I wanted to come in and play,” he said.
And he said there are no regrets now about doing just that. “There’s a lot of things I need to clean up and work on, but I think I can definitely use that year as a learning experience.”
Taking your lumps comes with the territory. Newby took a few, most notably a dropped option pitch on the third play against Michigan State that began a day of turnover turmoil for the Huskers.
But Newby has moved along, eager, helped by some advice from Abdullah, who knows what it’s like to be typecast by some as a smaller back upon arrival to campus.
Abdullah also knows what it’s like to wait his turn. The senior carried it just 42 times as a freshman, 12 fewer rushes than Newby had in 2013.
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“I tell Terrell all the time, he's more privileged than me, believe it or not,” Abdullah said during his news conference announcing his return to Nebraska for one more year.
Abdullah also uttered this: “I’ve always said, ‘I feel like he's probably the best back in our room right now.’ You just haven’t seen it so far. When he gets his chance, he'll definitely make his name here.”
Newby appreciates the support, picking the veteran’s brain whenever he can. “I really use him as an example. He’s really taken me under his wing.”
And while Abdullah’s return to Nebraska for one more season seems likely to dramatically cut into carries this year for Cross and Newby, both say they kind of expected all along he’d come back.
The reaction from Cross upon hearing the news?
“Great,” Cross said. “Let's go try to win a championship. You know, that's all you can really think. I think positivity is something that feeds. Ameer is a positive guy, and I want to be positive, too. I want to encourage competition. I want to encourage guys who are doing really well. I think it makes me a better player and I think I'll make him a better player.”
Granted, Cross seems the type who would push himself to the limits even if he were the only guy in the building.
He continues his habit of being one of the last guys off the practice field each day. Cross also tells you of a four-phase plan he has mapped out in his head for this offseason. He seems particularly enthused about Phase 3.
What's Phase 3?
"That’s May," he said. "In May, I’m going to hit it hard at explosion, acceleration, box jumps, plyometrics. Anything that can help my quick-twitch muscles."
It's all about getting whatever edge you can in a competition that revolves around four guys and one football. And, oh yeah, a fifth participant is on the way when true freshman Mikale Wilbon shows up this summer.
If it sounds crowded, that's the kind of crowd Newby said he expected when he signed on the dotted line.
“Anywhere you go, there’s always going to be competition,” Newby said. “That’s not why I came here, is to just be the man. I understand it’s going to be a competition.”
It’s definitely a good one.
Newby uses the word “dynamic” to describe Nebraska’s running back options. He expects all will find their way onto the field in one way or another.
“And it’s going to be really tough to stop once we get going.”