Tennessee Football: Is Imani Cross the Missing Piece of the Volunteers Offense?

Dr. SECAnalyst IINovember 10, 2011

The Tennessee Volunteers are currently dead last in the SEC rushing this season. The Vols are averaging an anemic 86.6 rushing yards per game and Tennessee fans are hoping the 2012 class will help bring some relief.

Relying on a freshman running back can be risky due to their inability to sustain punishment over the course of an entire college football season. However, this is unlikely to be an issue with Tennessee’s first verbal commitment of the 2012 season, Imani Cross.

Cross is a teenager in a grown man's body at 6’1" and 225 pounds. He is currently listed as a 3-star recruit, but that is only because many scouting agencies put greater emphasis on 40 times than game production.

Cross will never be confused with Millbrook, NC speedster Keith Marshall, but that does not mean he won't be an impact back as a freshman. Cross only runs a 4.65 40-yard dash, however, as you will see in his game film breakdown, he is still going to be a solid running back.

The Gainesville, GA native rushed for 1,698 yards on 191 carries and scored 24 touchdowns this season for North Hall High School.

As I turned on the game film to watch Cross, the first thing I noticed is the aforementioned body—it is ready for SEC play today. There will be no need to redshirt Cross, which is imperative for Tennessee if they are going to take the next step.

I knew before I turned on the first game he did not have the extra gear in the open field that some coaches crave; again, this is the sole reason that he was not ranked a 4-star recruit.

However, it is also clear that Cross does have very good straight-line speed for his size. While Cross is unlikely to break many 50-yard runs, he could end up with multiple 15-yard rushes each game. He is a three-down back and is just what the doctor ordered for the Volunteers offense.

He can pound the ball between the tackles and get positive yards each time. He does a phenomenal job of squaring up his shoulders and getting down field. One person will not bring him down and he consistently breaks arm tackles.

Cross runs behinds his pad and uses his thick thighs to drive through opponents. I watched three full games and he did not allow one linebacker to get a clean shot on him in any of those games. His ability to give the hit instead of taking the hit will go a long way in the SEC.

When running behind blockers, he is also very patient. He needs to work on making crisper cuts, but he does a good job of always maintaining his balance.

Outside his running style, another attribute that will allow him to get early playing time is his pass blocking.

The Volunteers will need to do a better job of protecting Tyler Bray next season and Cross could be of immediate help in that area. I truly believe he is a better pass blocker than 80 percent of the current SEC starting running backs.

Cross will also be valuable in catching passes out of the backfield, and I am sure Derek Dooley will use him in several running back screens. He has good hands and his downhill running style will be valuable in such plays.


Final Analysis:

I believe Imani Cross will get valuable minutes as a true freshman. He is not going to bring the wow factor that some fans want to see at first, but he will become a first-down machine and a tremendous asset in both blocking and receiving in the passing game.

I do not like comparing NFL legends to high school recruits, however, he does remind me of Emmitt Smith a great deal. Smith ran a 4.7 40-yard dash early in his career but knew how to run behind his pads.

I am not predicting that Cross will become the next Emmitt Smith, but he will be a solid SEC back. Even though he was an early commit, he made a wise choice in selecting Tennessee. His skill set wouldn’t succeed everywhere but it will in Knoxville.