Listed measurements: 6-foot ⅞, 275 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: A junior, Cross still has all four seasons of his eligibility remaining after playing in only four games in 2019 and then being a beneficiary of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver in 2020.
Depth chart: Notre Dame has a distinct starter at nose tackle in fifth-year Kurt Hinish, but the Irish value a rotation along the defensive line, particularly on the interior, and Cross will be one of two options to relieve Hinish along with junior Jacob Lacey. Despite a shoulder injury that was worrisome at the start of the pandemic, Cross has maintained better health and availability than Lacey, which could be the difference in remaining Hinish’s primary backup instead of the third piece of the rotation.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, the Gatorade New Jersey Football Player of the Year chose Notre Dame over offers from a number of Big Ten and ACC programs, including Michigan, Northwestern and Boston College, to name a few typical Irish foes. The son of a former NFL tight end, Cross was rated the No. 27 defensive end in the class of 2019, per rivals.com.
CAREER TO DATE
After appearing in four games and making seven tackles as a freshman in 2019, Cross played in all 12 games in 2020 while backing up Hinish, making 13 tackles in doing so.
Lacey’s 2020 was a bit more altered by the coronavirus pandemic, putting Cross firmly into the No. 2 slot in the three-man rotation.
NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
A backup nose tackle may not get much attention from the public, but Cross’ play garners attention and praise from Notre Dame’s coaching staff.
“There’s a lot of depth there (along the defensive line), across the board, inside-out,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said last month. “Howard Cross is very difficult to defend. Great leverage, great first step quickness, very difficult to block.”
Cross’ frame may not make for a ranging defensive tackle, and his wingspan is not particularly wide, but that same frame boasts a low center of gravity, and thus that great leverage.
“Howard Cross is just a dynamic accelerator,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said in mid-April. “Speed off the ball, low pad level, he finds ways into creases and gaps. He’s always in the backfield and he’s quick with his hands. He’s got good speed and really good agility. He’s been a load to block.
“He’s going to have a breakout season and I’m excited for him.”
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.
DOWN THE ROAD
Hinish returning in 2021 was never expected. He will not be able to do so in 2022.
While Notre Dame is developing depth on the interior — sophomore Aidan Keanaaina will be the next vital addition to the nose tackle rotation — Cross should be the starter in 2022. In some ways, following Hinish set up Cross for success; the veteran is not exactly towering at 6-foot-1. The Irish know how to defend well with a nose tackle more dependent on tenacity than on height and length.
Hinish’s intensity may be impossible to match, but otherwise, Cross should be able to step right in for him next season and hold the starting gig for at least two years. His effectiveness in doing so will determine the effectiveness of new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. His defense relies on aggressiveness, and in order for that not to be a self-harming approach, the defensive line needs to be able to hold its own without additional blitzers. That begins with the nose tackle.
NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end
No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver
No. 81 Jay Brunelle, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 80 Cane Berrong, early-enrolled freshman tight end
No. 79 Tosh Baker, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 78 Pat Coogan, incoming freshman center
No. 77 Quinn Carroll, junior offensive lineman
No. 76 Joe Alt, incoming and towering freshman offensive lineman
No. 75 Josh Lugg, fifth-year right tackle, finally a starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, junior offensive tackle, possible backup center
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, early-enrolled offensive tackle, former Auburn commit
No. 70 Hunter Spears, junior offensive guard, former defensive tackle
No. 68 Michael Carmody, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle
No. 56 John Dirksen, senior reserve offensive lineman