Junior Keivarae Russell: A handful of candidates for the junior all-star candidates best game to date, with wins over Oklahoma and USC in 2012 and against USC and BYU in 2013 among them, but it was his most recent outing, the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers that best showcased Russell's talents and improvement over his first two seasons as a starter.
Matched often vs. NFL prospect Brandon Coleman, Russell shined, breaking up three passes, intercepting another, and taking the Scarlet Knight's most dangerous offensive weapon out of the mix for most of the contest, a 29-13 Irish victory.
One of the nation's most experienced cornerbacks, Russell boldly proclaimed post-game his intentions to rank among the top players at his position for 2014. His quest began in earnest with an outstanding spring.
Senior Matthias Farley: A two-year starter at safety, Farley worked at the nickel position during spring 2014 for new coordinator Brian VanGorder. As a safety in 2012-13, at least four of Farley's best efforts to date occurred in his first season as a starter, a time when he was surrounded (and protected by) dominant veteran defenders.
Though he was outstanding in Notre Dame's BCS-clinching win against USC in the Coliseum (2012), and also showed well in a bounce back effort last September against Michigan State (a game-changing interception following an ill-conceived halfback pass by the Spartans), Farley's best was doubtless in the mid-October 2012 epic against Stanford, a slugfest won by the Notre Dame defense, 20-13 in overtime.
Farley posted a career-best eight tackles including one for a loss of seven yards in the shadow of the Irish goal line to hold the Cardinal to an early fourth quarter field goal. Farley also intercepted a pass and returned the offering 49 yards to set up Notre Dame's first points (a field goal) of the rainy afternoon.
The Irish defense needs Farley to return to (at least) his 2012 form in 2014 after a disappointing junior campaign.
Fifth-year senior transfer Cody Riggs: As a starting safety for the Florida Gators, Riggs dominated in a 30-10 win over Arkansas last October, registering six tackles including 2.5 for lost yardage while adding a pass breakup and sack. Riggs is expected to compete opposite Russell for a starting cornerback role as well as the starting nickel job this summer and through August camp in South Bend.
Sophomore Cole Luke: After a rough start as the team's nickel defender, the rookie Luke improved as the 2013 season progressed but his greatest impact came in Week Eight as the Irish defense -- namely its third-down dime package -- gamely held off the Men of Troy, a 14-10 Notre Dame victory over rival USC.
Luke combined with KeiVarae Russell to end the Trojans comeback attempt with a game-ending pass breakup on a throw intended for future All-American, Nelson Agholor. Luke had previously forced a Trojans punt with a diving stop that limited the Trojans to six yards on 3rd and 10.
Sophomore Devin Butler: Though Butler greatly aided the defense's dime package in the season's second half, his best outing likely came in defeat when head coach Brian Kelly named the rookie Notre Dame's special teams player of the week for his physical efforts vs. Oklahoma in kickoff coverage.
Senior (redshirt-junior) Jalen Brown: Has played sparingly over the last two seasons but his best came when the 2012 defense announced its dominance, winning handily in East Lansing, 20-3 over the favored Michigan State Spartans. Brown broke up a third quarter pass and earned honorable mention honors from Irisheyes.com for his relief efforts.
Senior Josh Atkinson: Like Brown, Atkinson showed well vs. the Spartans in 2012, offering key snaps in lieu of starters Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell -- the last game of the season in which the Irish defense boasted a heavy cornerback rotation en route to 12-0.