Defensive end Howard Cross III perpetuates Notre Dame football commitment spree

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The Notre Dame football program has been in a New Jersey state of mind recently, and the Irish recruiting efforts in that state paid off again on Sunday.

Strongside defensive end prospect Howard Cross III, of Montvale, N.J., made a verbal commitment to head coach Brian Kelly and becomes the third player to join the 2019 class in the past three days, bringing the class total to six committed prospects.

If his commitment sticks through the December signing period, he’ll be the 11th recruit from New Jersey to sign with the Irish in the Kelly Era, but the fifth in the 2018 and 2019 cycles. Four-star offensive lineman John Olmstead, of Metuchen, N.J., committed to ND on Friday.

The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Cross — a four-star prospect himself, who attends St. Joseph Regional High School — spent the weekend at Notre Dame with his father, former New York Giants tight end and University of Alabama product Howard Cross Jr. They took in the 89th annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

“I didn’t have in mind that I was going to commit when I left New Jersey,” Cross said via telephone Sunday afternoon. “But the whole campus experience put it over the top.

“It’s everything I was looking for in a school, from great academics to great football to great student life. The Blue-Gold Game was impressive — the intensity of the game and the amount of people who showed up for a spring game (31,729). That got my attention.”

Cross chose Notre Dame from among an offer list that includes Michigan, Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Tennessee. Rivals deems him 26th nationally at his position; 247Sports rates him as the No. 24 strongside defensive end.

Three of the six Irish commitments in the 2019 class are defensive linemen.

“He’s got growth potential, so he could end up as a defensive tackle,” assessed CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, who met with the Cross family on Saturday. “He’s got the bloodlines and he’s pretty athletic, runs well and had some big-time offers.

“He’s one of the top players overall in Northern New Jersey.”

Kelly and his staff signed six players from that state in his first eight recruiting cycles as the ND head coach. Five of them eventually became starters, including recent All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson and current No. 1 QB Brandon Wimbush.

The current run of five New Jersey players — incoming freshmen Jayson Ademilola, Justin Ademilola and Shayne Simon, along with commits Olmstead and Cross — is in part the product of a renewed emphasis in the talent-rich state. Heading into last season, New Jersey produced the 10th-most players on opening-day NFL rosters.

“There are not a lot of top players in New Jersey who choose to stay home, because Rutgers has been more off than on,” Lemming said. “So it’s a really good recruiting state and one Notre Dame should take advantage of.

“Most of the top players in the state go to Catholic schools, particularly in North Jersey. If Notre Dame has a good recruiter in the state, they’re going to get a lot of those kids. A few years ago, they didn’t. The high school coaches didn’t even know who was supposed to be recruiting their state for Notre Dame.”

Lemming said former defensive coordinator and New Jersey native Mike Elko and current Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston are largely responsible for the resurgence.

“Mike Elston is an outstanding recruiter, and goes wherever he needs to go to get defensive linemen,” Lemming said. “Notre Dame has a magical name. Kelly has done a good job of getting better recruiters on his staff instead of guys who are just happy to be there.

“If they work as hard as the other coaches, they’ll get the kids in New Jersey or at least be right in the ballgame.”

Cross is putting in the work too, putting an emphasis on improving his speed.

“The work is paying off,” said Cross, who’d like to enroll early, in January, but is not sure yet if he’ll be able to. “And I’m only just getting started.”

Four-star defensive end Howard Cross III, a 2019 recruit, reported a Notre Dame offer April 3, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Rivals)