LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska's Imani Cross was one of the Big Ten's most dependable short-yardage backs last season. This spring, he's out to show he's capable of being so much more.
"Oh, yes, yes," he said. "I want to be a pass-catching back, I want to be a blocking back, I want to be an inside-zone back, an outside-zone back, a sweep back. Whatever type of back you name, I want to train to be that one day. It's hard to do, but that's what dreams are for, to try to go get them."
Cross last backed up Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah, and took turns with Braylon Heard. Burkhead has graduated, Abdullah is shut down for the spring because of an injury and Heard is transferring. That's allowed Cross to get a long look from coaches, and they like what they see.
"Really pleased with his demeanor," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "He knows Ameer is out. He doesn't care. He'll take every snap. He'll run till he drops."
Cross was the Huskers' go-to man when they needed tough yards last season. He converted 16 of 20 times when 1 to 3 yards were required for a first down or touchdown. He finished with 55 carries for 324 yards and seven TDs.
Abdullah was a 1,000-yard rusher last season and will go into the fall as the No. 1 back. Cross, a rising sophomore, is approaching the spring as if he'll play an expanded role.
He spent the offseason shaving some weight and working to get faster, and he usually leaves the practice field a half-hour after most of his teammates so he can get in some extra work.
"My freshman season, I rate it as a learning experience," Cross said. "I was able to be behind a great running back, Rex Burkhead, and behind another one in Ameer. That helped me to see things, and I got some playing time and was able to take a lot of mental notes."
He's seeing the payoff this spring.
"One thing I'm noticing is I'm getting the tempo, I'm getting the signals a lot better and I'm understanding the plays and the schemes," he said. "I'm not just hearing the play, I'm seeing the play before it happens."
Cross also has made physical improvement. The 6-foot-1 Cross played at 232 pounds as a freshman. He went to team nutritionist Scott Trausch and requested a diet that would give him more stamina. Trausch put him on a daily 3,500-calorie regimen that's light on carbohydrates and red meat and heavy on fruits and vegetables. He's down to 225 pounds and said he feels great.
"I'm still trying to train my body so I can feel even better," Cross said.
Cross said he hasn't been timed in the 40-yard dash since he ran one in 4.56 seconds his junior year of high school in Gainesville, Ga. He said he senses he's gotten faster.
"He seems quicker," Beck said. "He sure does."
Now that Cross has a better understanding of the offense and two of the three running backs ahead of him are gone, Beck said, there's no reason to think he won't have a greater role in the fall.
"We're going to teach him everything to do just like he was an every-down back," Beck said.
Cross said he's confident he'll get a fair shake.
"We really haven't discussed my role," he said. "But one thing I know is evident is every guy has a chance when he comes out on the field to compete, and that's my main focus. I trust the coaches and I trust in God that everything else will take care of itself."