How NT Howard Cross III packs a big punch despite his smaller stature
To play nose tackle at 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds is to present an enticing on-paper matchup for opposing centers and guards.
Nose tackle is a position that often smashes into double-teams and has to eat space. The average starter is typically around 300 pounds. At Notre Dame, starting nose tackle Kurt Hinish is exactly that size. It’d be understandable if an opponent’s offensive linemen looked at the modest measurables next to junior Howard Cross III — Hinish’s backup and the starter in his absence — and wondered, this guy is a nose tackle?
Yes, Howard Cross III really is a nose tackle at that size. And it’s an advantage for him.
“Centers probably look at him on the scouting report and say, ‘He’s small. We’re about to move these guys,’” senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola said. “Nope. Howie will push your stuff in.”
Game days, then, are unpleasant surprises for opposing linemen who see 6-1, 275 on a depth chart and can’t fully appreciate the physical traits on film. Cross slips by them with crafty hand work and a top-level burst off the ball. He beats pulling linemen to their spot, leaving them a cloud of dust instead of a man to block. He’s a wrecking ball of energy.
Cross climbed up to the No. 2 nose guard spot last season, making 13 tackles with six quarterback pressures while averaging 13.8 snaps per game.
In the same role this year, he has eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and eight pressures through five games. He totaled five tackles (1.5 for loss) and three pressures in starts against Wisconsin and Cincinnati while Hinish was out with a concussion. He makes up for a lack of mass with rare physical gifts.
“Howard’s hands are so heavy,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “His first-step quickness is as good as we’ve had here at Notre Dame.”
Considering the list of standout defensive linemen in Kelly’s 12-year tenure, that’s hefty praise. It’s also a positive reflection on Notre Dame’s defensive line, which doesn’t give a full-time starting spot to a player with such traits. Ademilola even has a special label for Cross’ mitts.
“Howard, he has the most violent hands,” Ademilola said. “His get-off is insane. He plays with great pad level.”
What, exactly, do violent hands look like?
“He will strike you close in the chest,” Ademilola said. “It doesn’t matter who it is. If you don’t come off the ball faster than him, it’s done.”
Wisconsin and Cincinnati interior linemen know the feeling. Cross made his first career start in the 41-13 win over the Badgers Sept. 25 and announced his presence with a first-quarter exclamation point. Wisconsin center Joe Tippmann was assigned to slide right and reach-block him, but instead of getting hands on Cross’ chest, he turned and saw Cross already even with his face.
Tippmann had no chance. Cross churned past him and dropped Wisconsin running back Chez Mellusi for a three-yard loss.
The next week against Cincinnati, Cross shared a tackle for loss and stuffed a run near the goal line.
On the former, the right side of the Bearcats’ line greeted him on a first-quarter run play. Cross stuck his arms out, held his ground and side-stepped around right tackle Dylan O’Quinn as right guard Lorenz Metz left the double team. He barreled toward quarterback Desmond Ridder, who had kept the ball on a read option. Ridder saw the oncoming obstacle, surrendered and slid, taking a one-yard loss.
“He’s quick off the ball and difficult to get your hands on him,” Kelly said. “It starts there. He’s about 280 pounds, but he’s very, very strong. Strongest hands we have for an interior lineman.”
Later in the game, Cross engaged with Cincinnati left tackle James Tunstall, shed him with a toss to the side and made first contact on running back Jerome Ford to stop him for no gain. Violent hands and a lethal first step at work.
“He’s fast. He likes to stay low,” said senior walk-on offensive lineman Max Siegel II, who faces Cross as part of the scout team. “He has a lot of power, too. You try to block his speed, you get caught off-guard with power. You try to be ready for power, you can get beat with speed. He has a lot of things going for him.”
Cross is a change of pace at nose tackle from Hinish, who has impressive first-step quickness himself but is Notre Dame’s biggest defensive lineman. Cross averaged 37 snaps in the first three games of the year, just five per game fewer than Hinish in that span. He played 54 snaps against Wisconsin in his first career start.
Hinish, a captain and three-year starter, is the No. 1 nose tackle when healthy. Full stop. Cross, though, has quite literally shoved his way to unofficial 1A status.
“He just keeps pushing,” Siegel said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Even though he isn’t the biggest.
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