Nebraska's Imani Cross Fell into the Top RB Role, and He Might Not Give It Up

Adam Jacobi@Adam_JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterMarch 12, 2013

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 22: Running back Imani Cross #32 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers runs past linebacker Demetrius Allen #11, defensive back Phillip Pleasant #24 and defensive back Donovan Henley #2 of the Idaho State Bengals during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2012 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Nebraska's backfield doesn't look nearly as crowded this spring as it did just a few weeks ago. Rex Burkhead is gone, and we obviously knew that was coming. Then Braylon Heard left the team, and while that was kind of surprising, eh, it happens. So now the I-back competition is down to junior Ameer Abdullah and sophomore Imani Cross, plus two true freshmen who'll show up in the summer and a handful of walk-ons.

Now comes word that for the next few weeks, we can scratch Abdullah off that list as well. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, Bo Pelini announced his star tailback had suffered a knee injury, and the Huskers might not hurry to get him back on the field:

Running back Ameer Abdullah, the team's leading returning rusher, injured a knee Saturday. However, Pelini said Monday the injury isn't serious.

"He tweaked his knee a little bit, nothing big," the coach said. "He'll be back in a couple weeks full-go.

"He'll be back in time for part of spring. Whether we let him do that, I don't know. It gave us a little bit of a scare, but not a big deal."

Breathe easy, Husker fans, because an ACL tear would have shelved Abdullah for the season, no questions asked. Starting tailbacks can miss spring. They have that luxury.

Except...Abdullah might not. Here's why. Imani Cross is the prohibitive favorite to be Nebraska's top I-back throughout the spring session, and once he shows off his ability to go 20, 25 carries a game with the top unit rather than being used situationally, it is entirely possible that his role with the offense stays once Abdullah works his way back into the rotation.

Don't get us wrong—Abdullah is very, very good. If you need a reminder, please check this highlight reel and gaze in awe at his ability to cover 10 yards off a cut in the time it takes you to blink. Hey, we told you to gaze, not blink. That acceleration is sublime.

Cross was already a beast, one unlike any Nebraska has had at tailback in years, and he just spent the offseason getting himself into superhuman shape. Here's more from a recent report by the Omaha World-Herald:

He's down to 221 pounds. His daily calorie count has gone from 4,500 to 3,500.

He originally targeted 225, but that didn't feel right. So he dropped four more pounds. He's comfortable now, but Cross mentioned in an interview Monday that as a high school sophomore he weighed 217 and comfortably competed in an offense similar to what Nebraska is running now.

The NU coaches won't complain, assuming Cross keeps improving his numbers in the weight room.

At this point, he hasn't lost any strength — the kid who knocked out 41 pull-ups and 200 push-ups in a conditioning test last year still reps 500 pounds on the squat, according to running backs coach Ron Brown.

That is freakish. Be very afraid.

And Cross had a very specific goal in mind with that weight loss: a bigger role in Nebraska's offense. It's one thing to be the goal-line bruiser and beat your way into the end zone a couple of times a game. That's fine, but at the end of the day you're not topping the 100-yard mark like that. And it's questionable if that's going to get you drafted by the NFL, a league that, with some rare exceptions, shies away from the 230-plus pound backs in anything but spot roles. 

But man, if a relentless competitor like Cross gets his weight to where he's an effective every-down rusher, he's one sure pair of hands away from establishing himself as a more reliable option than the butter-fingered Abdullah, who has haunted Huskers with his penchant for untimely fumbles in his first two seasons—seven lost fumbles in 2012 alone, including muffed punts. 

Cross is not faultless either, but if he has even a normal fumble rate, he'll be miles ahead of Abdullah on that front. And when you've got an offense that's built to move the chains rather than fly down the field in three plays and a defense that's going to struggle at times, the absolute last thing you need is an unreliable ball-carrier at I-back.

The good news is that after Cross gets his audition at tailback during the spring, he and Abdullah should have a spirited competition for the starting I-back spot in the summer. And really, whoever wins that competition is still going to see a lot of his carries go to his backup; Cross and Abdullah are different enough that Nebraska can find value in a platoon.

If ever there were a situation where a 1,100-yard rusher gets Wally Pipped, this is the recipe.