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Notre Dame Football

Film Don't Lie | Howard Cross is a Game Wrecker

May 7, 2024
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It’s been a long journey for Howard Cross III at Notre Dame.

He was a four game redshirt in 2019 and then found himself on the fringe of the rotation in 2020. He cracked the defensive line rotation in year three before establishing himself as a full-time starter in year four. That 2022 season was looking like it would be his breakout, but an ankle injury delayed that from happening.

Before he suffered it, he was arguably Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman in the first ¼ of the season.

It was a slow burn, but he kept building and improving as more opportunities came. It all led to a monster 2023 season for him. He was named a second team All-American and played himself into a legitimate NFL prospect despite his diminutive stature compared to other top prospects.

Notre Dame has had a couple of very good defensive tackles who were undersized in recent years in Sheldon Day and Jayson Ademilola. Cross is similar to them, but different.

Day and Ademilola were pure 3-techs and that is probably the position that would best suit Cross as well, but he plays nose tackle for the Irish and was fantastic playing it last season.

Here he is head up on the center against Ohio State and winning with leverage, violent hands, and then finishing with a stuff.

He’s not a Louis Nix type who has the advantage of size to help him hold up at the point of attack. Cross needs to be explosive off the ball with both his first step and his hands like he was here against Navy.

That play was a perfect example of how Cross’ ability to be disruptive doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet. He had two pressures last season which directly led to interceptions against Tennessee State and Pitt. There are plenty of other plays where he deserved an assist for someone else’s tackle for loss or sack as well.

He was credited with 11 total havoc plays (tackles for loss, pass breakups, and forced fumbles), but he might have led the nation in havoc assists.

This is clinic tape right here with him at the goal-line against Duke. Jim Nagy, former NFL scout and executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl, nails it with his description of how Cross gets the job done here. (Great job by Rylie Mills controlling the guard and shedding as well)

Another thing that makes Cross special is his ability to not only be disruptive with his first step into the backfield, but he can recover and redirect to finish plays. This is not normal for a player to lateral step to one gap and then have the flexibility to maneuver back to make this tackle.

He showed the same thing against NC State when he lateral stepped to the left, but pinballed back to the right to get involved with this tackle.

Cross is a problem for opponents as a pass rusher too. His mobility makes him a perfect fit with Notre Dame’s weekly rush plan that often involves slants and stunts up front. He was so good as an individual rusher early last season that teams were forced to double him frequently due to the fact he was winning so many one on one matchups.

Cross had PFF’s second best pass rush grade for interior linemen against true pass sets last season and led all defensive tackles in pressures against TPS.

Duke’s Jacob Monk, who lined up at guard and center against Notre Dame, was a second team All-ACC player and drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. He might still be having nightmares about Cross after they played the Irish.

Cross does so many things well, but what truly sets him apart is his motor. It’s obvious why Al Washington has a difficult time taking Cross off the field. His consistent effort makes a difference.

The center has reach blocked him here and many defenders aren’t able to recover or give up when this happens. Cross keeps fighting and makes the tackle.

This play against Clemson is a touchdown if he isn’t hustling to make a tackle here. Running back Phil Mafah kept his feet after the cut tackle attempt and was going to keep going if not for Cross. He went from being doubled on the backside of the play to chasing this down.

This was a massive moment in the USC game that will never show up on a stat sheet. The run is going the opposite way and many would just settle for having their gap here. He is fighting back to get to the ball and it causes a hold from the right guard.

If the guard didn’t hold him, he’s probably tackling Caleb Williams for a loss. Forcing this hold took a touchdown off the board.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story with how big of an impact Cross had last season. The film proves he was even better. He and Mills had a quiet spring as the coaching staff gave a lot of reps to younger defensive tackles.

Expect the film to speak loudly for Cross again this fall as one of the best interior defensive linemen in the country.

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