Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 56 Howard Cross, fifth-year defensive tackle, multi-year starter
Listed measurements: 6-foot-⅞, 280 pounds.
2023-24 year, eligibility: A fifth-year veteran, Cross has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: Cross will start for Notre Dame at nose tackle this fall, once again serving at the point of attack, more often tasked with occupying space than breaking into the backfield. There is no proven backup behind him, though juniors Jason Onye and Gabe Rubio have impressed enough to think Cross will get some rest in 2023. Onye better fits the position, but Rubio has more experience.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Cross chose the Irish over a bounty of Big Ten and ACC offers, including Michigan, Northwestern and Boston College. The son of a former NFL tight end and the Gatorade New Jersey Football Player of the Year in 2018, Cross was rated the No. 27 defensive end in the class by rivals.com.
CAREER TO DATE
Cross spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons backing up workhorse veteran Kurt Hinish and three-technique tackle Jayson Ademilola, but as a head injury worried Hinish’s final season and nagging shoulder concerns slowed Ademilola’s 2021, Cross broke out with 22 tackles in 11 games, including 4.5 tackles for loss with three sacks. He shined most as the season neared its conclusion.
Entering 2022, Cross looked set for more of a contributing role, though his starting most of the season was initially unexpected. He would have started more than seven games if a left high ankle sprain had not plagued Cross for much of the year. But with the abrupt early-season departure of Jacob Lacey, Notre Dame needed every play it could get from Cross.
2019: 4 games; 7 tackles.2020: 12 games, 13 tackles.2021: 11 games; 22 tackles with 4.5 for loss including three sacks.2022: 12 games, seven starts; 33 tackles with 2.5 for loss including two sacks and one forced fumble.
Nose tackles do not usually end up the No. 9 leading tackler for a season, a testament to Cross’s energy level when on the field, even with that balky ankle.
NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Why more recreational and outfitting stores have not struck NIL deals with more linemen, both offensive and defensive, defies comprehension.
Anyway, Notre Dame should return to “camp” — more precisely referred to as “preseason practices” — in just about five weeks.
For years, the only conversations around Cross were praises of his hand strength. While undersized, both in height and weight, his initial punch off the snap astounded former Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston and current defensive line coach Al Washington.
After last season, though, Cross’s experience warrants more notice than his “heavy” hands.
“Howard Cross has played a lot of ball, but he’s taking those next steps a veteran should make,” Washington said in mid-April.
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Let’s look at Cross’ 2022 possibilities through the numbers, given that prediction last season ended up so on the nose.
“He took 330 snaps in 2021, making 22 tackles. That came a year after making 13 tackles on 166 snaps. The percentage of snaps on which Cross made the tackle fell to 6.7 percent from 7.8 percent in 2020, but that should always have been expected as sample size increased. Making a tackle once every 15 plays in which you are on the field warrants some praise when one of your primary duties is to make it easier for other players to make tackles.
“Cross’ 2021 did not jump off the page at any point, but it still warranted some praise. He was the backup at both nose tackle and three-technique, focusing more on three-technique as the season went along.
“Washington will need to find ways to get Cross onto the field in 2022. His hands alone demand that playing time, able to knock an offensive lineman back with one shot. Rotating Cross in at both nose tackle and three-technique will serve that need, while also assuring both Ademilola and senior nose tackle Jacob Lacey adequate rest.
“That may not lead to many more snaps than 330. Extrapolate that action across 13 games rather than 11 and it boosts Cross’ prorated 2021 count to 390 snaps. That could have been good for another four tackles from the interior force.
“Raise that thought to 30 tackles this season, simply as a nod to development, but remember Cross’ greatest impact is not statistical. He provides Notre Dame dynamic depth, a luxury formerly unknown for the Irish as recently as 2017 and 2018.”
Two years in a row, extrapolating the previous season’s stats sheerly based on more snaps has led to surprisingly accurate projections. Doing so for a third year becomes more difficult because Cross should play only so many more snaps as compared to 2022.
His ankle health, however, could lead to some more explosive play. Consider how well Cross played early last season before his ankle became a constant nuisance. Cross had 21 tackles in the first three weeks of 2022. That kind of pace was obviously unsustainable, but consistent play-making should be expected from a healthy Cross.
After averaging seven tackles per week through the first three weeks of the year, he fell to 1.3 tackles per game in his final nine games. If one were to split that, it lands at 4.15 tackles per Saturday. Take that out across 13 weeks and Cross would project to 54 tackles.
That would have been third on Notre Dame’s defense last year. It may be a bit bold to think Cross could tally that many tackles, but something in the 45 range would fit.
If he adds a handful of sacks, all the better for the Irish. “Duh, Douglas, it would be good to have some sacks.” Yes, but the point is that Notre Dame does not have a proven disruptive defensive lineman right now. Cross and expected three-technique starter Rylie Mills have both played a good amount, but neither has shown the kind of regular dominance that is needed from a defensive line to raise a season’s ceiling.
Thus, the suggestion of a handful of sacks coming from Cross is a suggestion that his finding traction in the backfield on a weekly basis would elevate the Irish season in a way that is needed, particularly with only unknowns behind him. If that kind of penetration comes because of blitzes, so be it, though Notre Dame would prefer Cross create the chaos on his own.
DOWN THE ROAD
At some point in the next two years, this thought will not have to be frequently pondered. Cross’s class is the second-to-last that benefits from the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, and with each year, fewer players will use that season of added availability. But for now, Cross could return for a sixth year in 2024, and if the next two seasons include health, he could reach 65 career appearances in a gold helmet. That would break Houston Griffith’s record of 62 games.
Cross should not return to college just to notch a rather asterisk-worthy record, but it could be the thought that puts him over the edge.
As much as Cross plays bigger and stronger than his size, the NFL will struggle to look past his measurables. It would take a shocking season for Cross to play his way into draft considerations, even as a multi-year starter at a program like Notre Dame.
And he really does play bigger and stronger than his size. Look at the relative ease of his sack of Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. Now at Oregon State, Uiagalelei stands 6-foot-4 and weighs more than 250 pounds. Cross did not have a distinct size advantage, yet he had no trouble standing up Uiagalelei before getting him to the ground in Notre Dame’s upset last November. Cross did not use momentum or his weight; he simply relied on his strength.
NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 93 Armel Mukam, incoming freshman defensive end, former Stanford commit
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 87 Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year ...
No. 78 Pat Coogan, junior interior offensive lineman
No. 77 Ty Chan, sophomore offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, first-team All-American left tackle
No. 75 Sullivan Absher, incoming freshman offensive lineman
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, sophomore left guard, likely starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, fifth-year right guard, likely starter
No. 72 Sam Pendelton, early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman
No. 70 Ashton Craig, sophomore interior offensive lineman
No. 68 Michael Carmody, senior offensive lineman
No. 65 Michael Vinson, sixth-year long snapper, four-year starter
No. 64 Joe Otting, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 59 Aamil Wagner, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 56 Charles Jagusah, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 55 Chris Terek, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 51 Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 17 Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 13 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 12 Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience
No. 4 Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth