Heavy-handed Howard Cross III plays bigger than his size as a Notre Dame nose guard

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame's Howard Cross III (56) holds off Purdue's Jared Bycznski (79) during the Notre Dame vs. Purdue NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Howard Cross III takes his hands seriously. 

Notre Dame’s junior nose guard will find random moments to practice shooting his hands as if he’s playing football against a ghost. For years, Cross made extra time to sharpen a skill set that would eventually become an equalizer for him on the field. 

It was a lesson from his father, Howard Cross Jr., who played tight end at Alabama before spending 13 seasons with the New York Giants. 

“One of the big things that he taught me was use your hands,” Cross III said. “That’s what everybody wants to do, but no one can do. So after practice, I’d practice shooting my hands — shooting, holding, tearing off, ripping off — and it stuck with me.  

“After practice, even when I’m alone in my room, I’ll just step and shoot my hands on air.” 

The skill set Cross crafted in part against invisible defenders has become a big reason why the 6-foot-1, 275-pound Cross can more than hold his own against real defenders who outweigh him by close to 50 pounds. That ability was tested earlier this season when Cross replaced an injured Kurt Hinish (6-2, 300) in the starting lineup for the first time. 

The assignment for Cross wasn’t an easy one. He needed to be a plug in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense against a Wisconsin offensive line featuring 320-pound center Joe Tippmann in the middle. Mission accomplished as the Badgers managed only 78 rushing yards in the 41-31 loss to Notre Dame in Chicago’s Soldier Field last month. 

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“We knew what we had with Howard Cross, and he was very difficult to block on Saturday,” head coach Brian Kelly said two days after the victory. “They had an outstanding center and they had to double team him all day, and that freed up (defensive tackle) Jacob Lacey.” 

Kelly said Cross has the strongest hands among Notre Dame’s interior defensive linemen and described his first-step quickness “as good as we've had here at Notre Dame.” 

Senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola might want to make a case for himself in those conversations, but he learned early in Cross’ career the kind of talent he possessed. 

“Ever since he got here as a freshman, he’ll strike you closed hands in the chest and it doesn’t even matter who it is,” Ademilola said. “If you don’t come off the ball faster than him, it’s done up.” 

An unconventional nose guard 

Nose guard might not have seemed liked a natural fit for Cross as a four-star recruit out of Montvale (N.J.) Saint Joseph Regional. Rivals ranked Cross as the No. 23 strongside defensive end in the 2019 class. 247Sports slated him No. 29 at the position. 

But Cross did play across the defensive line at Saint Joseph and was willing to take on whatever task was given to him. Some colleges passed on Cross because of his size. He was a great player, coaches said, but he wasn’t big enough. 

“That’s something I hear all the time and through high school,” Cross said. “The right technique will overcome all of that. Coming off the ball fast, using your hands, tearing off the ball will overcome everything.” 

Cross, who played mostly defensive tackle his first two seasons at Notre Dame before moving to nose guard, expects to be underestimated by opposing linemen. That could be easy to do looking at his height and weight on a scouting report. But an opposing offensive line coach should let his players know better before Cross throws his hands at them. 

If not, Cross enjoys catching an offensive lineman off guard. 

“Centers,” Ademilola said, “probably look at him like, ‘Oh, on the scouting report he’s small. We’re about to move these boys.’ Nope. Howie will push your stuff in.” 

Notre Dame’s Howard Cross III (56) celebrates after a big stop during Notre Dame’s 32-29 win over Toledo in an NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

No one called him “Howie” until Cross arrived at Notre Dame, but he can’t get rid of the nickname now. Just like the Irish can’t get rid of him from the defensive line rotation. Though Cross played just 12 snaps against Virginia Tech in Hinish’s return to the starting lineup, he should remain an important piece for defensive line coach Mike Elston. 

Before Hinish’s head injury, Cross was already the most-used backup defensive lineman through the first three games. His statistical impact has been limited — eight tackles, four quarterback hurries and 1.5 tackles for a loss — but the success of a nose guard is rarely measured in box scores. 

The path to Notre Dame 

Until Cross received a scholarship offer from Maryland as a sophomore in high school, he never considered college football as a realistic option for him. 

He wasn’t gifted with the same height as his 6-5 father, who didn’t push him to play football as a child despite his own football success. Cross III entered high school around 5-9. But a bit of a growth spurt allowed a college career to become reasonable. 

Cross quickly set his sights on Notre Dame as his dream option. Even though his father played at Alabama, a family friend who graduated from Notre Dame was always plugging the Irish to the younger Cross. As a high schooler, Cross realized the academic and athletic opportunities Notre Dame offered. 

“There are a lot of academic schools and a lot of football schools, but this is the one that’s even on both sides,” Cross said. “This was the main reason why I wanted to come here.” 

Elston gave Cross that opportunity with a scholarship offer in April 2018. He verbally committed less than three weeks later following a visit for the Blue-Gold Game. 

Elston molded Cross, an industrial design major, into a defensive lineman the Irish can rely on consistently as a junior. 

"He stuck with me through the entire time I was here," Cross said. "I know I’m a little hard to work with sometimes, because it takes me a little bit of time to figure stuff out — technique, refining what I already have. He’s pushed me to the point where he knows I can do it and he expects more from me.

"I’m happy for that. I like being pushed. I play better when I get pushed."

That may happen Saturday when No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) hosts USC (3-3) in a renewal of the rivalry in Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). The two teams didn’t play each other in 2020 due the COVID-induced scheduled changes. The last time the Trojans visited South Bend in 2019, the two teams had to be separated to prevent a scuffle from getting out of control at the start of halftime. 

Cross was just a freshman observer on the sideline that night in Notre Dame Stadium. Now he can partake in the sanctioned pushing and shoving. 

Word of caution to the Trojans: watch out for his hands. 

“As much as I wanted to come here, I didn’t know much about the rivalry games,” Cross said. “But my freshman year if there was a game that I could remember, it was the USC game. The physicality. Just everybody talking smack. The atmosphere was insane. We were high up and were they even ranked?  

“The physicality that they came with in the stadium was insane. I still remember just watching it and thinking this is nothing that I’ve seen before in the past games. This is crazy. I’m really excited for the USC game.” 

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. USC 

Who: No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. USC (3-3) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC/Peacock 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 6 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.