Is help on the way for Notre Dame's thin defensive tackle unit?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

None of Notre Dame’s defensive tackles have started a college football game.

The departures of last year’s seniors — Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner — left the Irish with limited experience inside. Sophomore Jayson Ademilola and juniors Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only defensive tackles that have played in more than one collegiate game.

The Irish return from spring break this week and resume Tuesday with practice No. 4 of 15. In ND’s opening March 2 session before the media, only four scholarship players rotated at defensive tackle: early enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey, Ademilola, Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa.

Marginal experience and depth at the position beckons the question: is help on the way? Defensive coordinator Clark Lea attempted to quell those concerns, providing a nonchalant answer in a March 7 press conference.

“Right now that’s not what keeps me up at night,” Lea said. “We have a great D-line coach (Mike Elston) that is getting young guys ready. We’re going to reintroduce healthy bodies and add some bodies in the summer and fall that will be not just serviceable but will push the standard forward.

“I’m not really concerned at this point. As we get closer, if we stay healthy and if those guys that are going to be added, if they develop the way I think they are, then we’ll be fine. If not, then we have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we need to do.”

Lea never mentioned him by name, but incoming freshman Howard Cross III could be that extra piece. Set to join the Irish in June, Cross signed with ND’s 2019 class as a defensive end from Montvale, N.J.

Elston recruited Cross with the intention of playing him all along ND’s defensive line. The Irish, though, recently approached him about moving inside full time.

“It was something along the lines of, ‘We are stretched thin a little bit at defensive tackle,’” Cross said of ND’s message to him. “‘We definitely think you can fit the position and do some work there. We think it’s a good idea for you to play the three-technique.’”

Cross spent 65 percent of plays at defensive tackle and the rest at defensive end for St. Joseph Regional, he told the Tribune. Yet, recruiting sites evaluated and projected Cross as a defensive end. The four-star recruit ranked as 247Sports’ No. 29 strongside defensive end and No. 381 overall player. Rivals slated Cross as its No. 23 strongside defensive end.

The 6-foot-1, 265-pounder registered 76 tackles, 22 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks, two pass breakups, two fumbles recoveries and one forced fumble as a senior. That earned him New Jersey’s Gatorade Player of the Year honors. Cross’s father, Howard Cross Jr., played 13 years for the New York Giants as a tight end.

“I think he lacks a little leverage with height, but he makes up for it with instincts, feet, hands,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “… He’s got the ability, the smarts and the bloodlines.

“So yeah, he could play inside and can contribute right away. Ideally, you would like him to put on more weight and muscle. Playing inside against these massive guys could be tough. But his quickness will help him out.”

ND’s spring defensive line group comprises of seven scholarship players: Early enrolled freshmen Hunter Spears and Lacey; sophomores Jamion Franklin and Ademilola; and juniors Darnell Ewell, Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa.

Tagovailoa-Amosa, who played in all 13 games in 2017, suffered a broken right foot in last season’s Michigan opener that sidelined him through the USC game. Ademilola played in every game but Stanford last season. Hinish participated in all but one contest in his first two years — NC State in 2017.

After making a switch to the offensive line last season, Ewell returned to defensive tackle this spring to help fill ND’s void at the position. In his debut against Wake Forest last season, Franklin suffered a season-ending torn quad that required surgery.

Spears suffered a torn ACL in his left knee that required Nov. 13 surgery. It marked his second torn left ACL in 19 months. Spears told the Tribune in December that he expects to be ready just before the 2019 season.

The combination of sparse experience and depth, position switches and injuries at defensive tackle compelled the Irish to tinker with Cross.

“They never really promised anything,” Cross said. “But they did say, ‘You are going to need to be ready.’ That kind of makes me think that I might get some (playing time). Obviously nothing is guaranteed, but I’m going to get a shot.”

Seven of ND’s eight 2019 linemen enrolled early in January. The one who didn’t was Cross. St. Joseph Regional prohibits the possibility. Cross has since spent this offseason improving his get-off and overall speed while looking to add weight and muscle.

Down the road, Cross may slide to defensive end or revert to ND’s plan of utilizing his versatility. But for now, he could be the extra piece that prevents the Irish from having a thin defensive tackle unit.

“Anywhere that they need me to play, I’ll play,” Cross said.

Montvale (N.J.) St. Joseph Regional’s Howard Cross III, Notre Dame’s 2019 signee, will join the Irish team in June.