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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 56 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle with heavy hands, and that’s a good thing

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 20: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Howard Cross III (56) battles during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Listed measurements: 6-foot-⅞, 275 pounds.2022-23 year, eligibility: A senior, Cross has three seasons of eligiblity remaining, in part thanks to playing in only four games as a freshman in 2019 and in part thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.Depth Chart: Cross will likely appear as the backup to fifth-year Jayson Ademilola at the three-technique tackle position, but he could functionally be the No. 2 nose tackle, as well.Recruiting: The Gatorade New Jersey Football Player of the Year in 2018, Cross chose Notre Dame over plenty of Big Ten and ACC offers, including Michigan, Northwestern and Boston College. The son of a former NFL tight end, the consensus four-star prospect was rated the No. 27 defensive end in the class, per

Cross broke out in 2021 with 22 tackles in 11 games, including 4.5 tackles for loss with three sacks, all while still in a reserve role. He most shined in November as Ademilola’s nagging shoulder slowed him a bit more and the Irish as a whole began to tire. In Notre Dame’s four games from Halloween Eve to mid-November, Cross racked up 12 tackles with three sacks.

2019: 4 games; 7 tackles.2020: 12 games; 13 tackles.2021: 11 games; 22 tackles with 4.5 for loss including three sacks.

Same, Howard.

This reporter’s high school won the football state championship his senior year of high school. (Nope, not on the team.) Its nose tackle was an intense son of a military man, standing all of 5-foot-6, and that might be generous. In the winter, he wrestled at a weight class somewhere in the 140s or 150s. In no way was he your typical nose tackle.

But pound-for-pound, no one on that team or any opposition could match him for muscle, let alone frightening intensity.

Cross evokes some of those same concepts, something new Irish defensive line coach Al Washington is encouraging Cross to embrace.

“He sees me for my size, and that’s in a good way,” Cross said this spring. “It should fire me up, because I’m small.

“I’m excited for the season, but it’s the same thing as last year. I’m trying to work on my get-off, I have to work on my pass rush and everything like that.”

Some of Washington’s encouragement may come from his own background, standing 6-foot-1 as a former defensive lineman at Boston College.

“I was an undersized D-tackle, I’m partial to [Cross],” Washington said. “Howard Cross is a beast. He’s an explosive kid. He can generate (push). He’s productive because he can create separation. …

“He’s hard to deal with. He’s very disruptive.”

“Cross’ height is not the mitigating trait it can be made out to be. Does it mean he is not as present in as many passing lanes? Absolutely. And he cannot reach out and cut off a running back out of nowhere.

“But Cross’ active abilities nonetheless make him a strong defensive tackle. He can absorb and maintain a block, the skill that first earned Hinish playing time back in 2017. And Cross’ strong hands allow him to shed those blocks when needing to get into the backfield.

“In the backup role in the middle, Cross will still get plenty of action. He took 166 snaps in 2020, a number that should only rise with a year’s development and fewer overall uncertainties.

“Realizing Cross took only 166 snaps in 2020, his effectiveness is clear. Making a tackle on nearly 8 percent of your plays is a sign of involvement. If he keeps to that rate, 2021 could include 20 or so tackles.”

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.

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Ademilola can play in 2022 only due to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, theoretically setting up Cross for a starting role in 2023, but in order to grasp it, he will need to prove an unquestionable ability to penetrate the offensive line time and time again. As much of a nuisance as Cross has been inside, his size will work against him in wrapping up players in the backfield, a must for the primary three-technique tackle.

To be clear, Cross made 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season. Clearly, he has not outright struggled in this regard. The expectation is he will fill Ademilola’s shoes.

The Irish would need to get creative to find some other Ademilola successor — perhaps moving current junior Rylie Mills back inside from “Big” end or maybe fine-tuning current sophomore Gabriel Rubio’s pass-rush abilities — but options will exist if Cross has not proven that skill.

From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 89 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end
No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, sophomore receiver, former four-star recruit
No. 80 Cane Berrong, sophomore tight end coming off an ACL injury
No. 79 Tosh Baker, one of four young Irish offensive tackles
No. 78 Pat Coogan, sophomore center, recovering from a meniscus injury
No. 77* Ty Chan, incoming offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, sophomore starting left tackle
No. 75 Josh Lugg, sixth-year offensive lineman, likely starting right guard
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard coming off foot surgery
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, senior offensive tackle-turned-guard
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, sophomore offensive tackle, former Auburn pledge
No. 68 Michael Carmody, junior offensive line utility man
No. 65 Michael Vinson, long snapper, ‘Milk’
No. 65* Chris Smith, defensive tackle, Harvard transfer
No. 59* Aamil Wagner, consensus four-star incoming freshman offensive tackle
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle, coming off shoulder surgery
No. 57* Ashton Craig, incoming freshman center
No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion

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