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Maryland safety Nick Cross, motivated by benching, turning into a ‘big-time player' for young defense

Nick Cross enjoyed several firsts last Saturday.

Not only did he and his Maryland football teammates defeat Penn State, 35-19, for the program’s first victory over the Nittany Lions since Nov. 1, 2014, but the sophomore safety also recorded the first sack and first forced fumble of his college career.

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He recorded the sack and forced fumble on the same play, no less, when he got to redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford and stripped him of the ball in the third quarter. Junior middle linebacker Chance Campbell recovered the fumble and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown that gave the Terps a 35-7 advantage.

Four days later, Cross was appreciative of his contributions in a meaningful game.

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“It means a lot anytime you can make an impact in a game, especially in a game of that magnitude,” he said Wednesday morning. “It means a lot just to be able to go out there and play a part in helping the team put away the victory. It definitely feels fulfilling, and it just shows that hard work pays off and that if you work hard enough every single day, when Saturday comes around, you’ll like the results.”

Cross headlined a strong defensive performance for Maryland (2-1), which suspended all activities Wednesday after eight players tested positive for the coronavirus over the previous seven days. Saturday’s game against No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) at Maryland Stadium in College Park also was canceled.

In addition to his sack and forced fumble, he led the unit in total tackles with eight, was tied for the team lead in pass breakups with two, and lodged the defense’s final takeaway with an interception in the fourth quarter.

“He really created some plays on defense with the strip-fumble, the interception, the tackles,” coach Mike Locksley said Tuesday. “That really helped our defense, and I think our defense will go as Nick goes because he has big-play ability on the back end, and he’s starting to really show the consistency that you want to see out of a big-time player.”

Maryland defensive back Kenny Bennett (24) celebrates with Nick Cross (3) and Antwaine Richardson (20) after intercepting a pass intended for Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) during a game Nov. 7.
Maryland defensive back Kenny Bennett (24) celebrates with Nick Cross (3) and Antwaine Richardson (20) after intercepting a pass intended for Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) during a game Nov. 7. (Barry Reeger/AP)

Cross' effort followed an early-season hiccup when he was benched after the Terps' season-opening 43-3 loss at Northwestern on Oct. 24. Despite ranking second on the team in tackles with seven against the Wildcats, Cross was replaced in the starting lineup by senior Antwaine Richardson for the next game against Minnesota.

“The first game, I didn’t think he played fast,” Locksley said. “We saw him not necessarily pull the trigger on some things, be a little hesitant, and for that, we benched him. … He didn’t start Game 2, and that was by coach’s decision because we didn’t think he played well and we want to create competition with every opportunity that we can.

"Each and every week, guys have to play to a standard, and if you’re not playing up to the standard — and we’ve created some depth at some positions where it’s allowed us to do things like that — I still think the biggest way to motivate a player is by putting him on the bench if he’s not playing to the standard or at the level. I liked the way that he responded, and he’s worked his way back as a starter and made huge plays.”

Cross, who said he could not remember the last time he had been sidelined for non-injury reasons, acknowledged that he “was upset a little bit,” but did not disagree with Locksley’s assessment of his play against Northwestern.

“I definitely think there were some things I could have done better from assignment-sound football and technique-sound football,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you live and you learn, and that was my mantra for that week.”

Cross made only four tackles in Maryland’s 45-44 overtime win against the Golden Gophers, but said he used the benching as motivation.

“It just drove me to continue to get better and work on some things that I needed to work on,” he said. “After Minnesota, I just continued to work on every aspect of my game so that I could go out there and contribute in the way that I know that I can.”

Sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa said Cross' range in the defensive backfield adds a certain degree of difficulty to practice.

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“When he’s in the middle of the field, he’s very fast, and he has good reactions to the ball, and he plays the ball,” Tagovailoa said. “He gets me better. It’s hard to go against a person like that, really fast, sideline-to-sideline when the ball’s in the air. He’s a very good player, and we look forward to getting each other better every day.”

Cross, who only began playing organized football when he was a freshman at DeMatha in Hyattsville, said he often reflects on his meteoric rise to playing safety for a Football Bowl Subdivision program.

“It seems surreal, but at the same time, it’s something I’ve dreamed and envisioned since I was a young kid,” he said. “I wanted to be able to go out there and play for a Power Five school. I just want to go out there and try to accomplish all of my goals and aspirations. It’s always been something that I’ve had in the back of my mind.”

Cross did not make his first start for the Terps until the seventh game last season against Indiana, and that was at inside linebacker. He switched to safety the following week at Minnesota, and Locksley said the coaches might have been too cautious with Cross’ playing time.

“We were very calculated in how we played him early and then we forced ourselves to put him on the field and let him learn by going through the process by throwing him into the fire,” he said. “And now we’re benefiting from that this year because of how much he played last season, and we’re starting to see him do the things of why we recruited him and why he was highly recruited as a player.

"His ability in the deep part of the field and his range and ability to get to the ball because of his speed and then the blanket of security that he offers and his ability to get the ball down on the ground if it breaks open have really shown up here.”

Cross said he has tried to model himself after NFL safeties Ed Reed, Jamal Adams and the late Sean Taylor.

“They have that attention to detail, being able to focus on being great all of the time,” he said. “They went out there and just played the game the way it was supposed to be played. They went out there and just made plays.”

Cross said he views himself as a leader in the secondary, but still has much to learn.

Informed of Locksley’s belief that “our defense will go as Nick goes,” Cross took a modest approach.

“I think I just go out there and play,” he said. “I try not to focus on the bigger picture. I just try to focus on doing my job every day and working on everything that I need to work on so that I can continue to get better and continue to contribute to the team as I know I can.”

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