Irish Position Rankings: Cornerback

Cody Riggs (left) is the defense's X-factor

We begin our pre-camp rankings of each Notre Dame position group with the program's No. 1 unit for 2014, the cornerbacks.

#1 -- Cornerback

5th-year senior transfer Cody Riggs, seniors Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and former safety Matthias Farley, junior Keivarae Russell, sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler, freshman Nick Watkins.

From the group above, Brown and Farley are the only competitors with a season of eligibility beyond their listed class. Both can apply for a fifth season in 2015.

Standout: KeiVarae Russell

Has started all 26 games of his Irish career after making a pre-camp 2012 switch from high school running back to cornerback…Stated his goal to be the best cornerback in the nation following his best game to date, last December's Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers in which he shut down Scarlet Knights NFL hopeful, six-foot six-inch, Brandon Coleman…Appears ideally suited for new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's aggressive scheme, one that emphasizes press coverage and man-to-man duels in space…

Named to the pre-season watch lists for both the Nagurski and Bednarik awards, presented to the nation's top defender…Of (curious) note: was omitted from the Thorpe Award watch list honoring the nation's best defense back.

Next In Line

Riggs and Luke. The two will battle it out in August for the starting role opposite Russell, with Luke the spring incumbent and Riggs the favorite in terms of experience and developed talent. Luke could be an excellent college cornerback down the road -- Riggs might already be one.

Riggs will also likely press Farley for the team's crucial nickel role -- defending opposing slot receivers in VanGorder's multi-faceted scheme.

Additional Depth

Butler and Farley, respectively, are well ahead of seniors Atkinson and Brown. Watkins, a four-star prep prospect from Dallas (Bishop Dunne, HS), has the man-to-man coverage chops to work his way into the rotation as a true freshman, especially if an injury befalls a starter/key reserve.

Farley is a 19-game starter at safety entering his senior season and he's likely the No. 5 cornerback for Notre Dame in 2014 -- that's impressive depth. The veteran leader took well to the nickel role in the spring and he has a much better chance of retaining that position than winning a two-deep (reserve) spot on the perimeter over Butler.

Consider Notre Dame's nickel, aka, five defensive backs set, a de facto base defense against spread-option offenses this fall. The Irish nickel back is arguably in position to make more plays on 2nd-and-long and 3rd down than any other player on the defense.

X-Factor: Riggs. A 26-game starter at cornerback and safety at Florida, his career to date has been defined as a consistent contributor on quality defenses (and in 2012, the Gators defense was outstanding). A college graduate, Riggs is in a one-season audition for the NFL -- he didn't come to South Bend to play in a reserve role. It's not implausible he emerges as one of the five or six best players on Notre Dame's 2014 defense.

Camp Questions

Can Farley hold off Riggs for the nickel role? Can Luke hold off Riggs at left cornerback? Can Butler make up ground on his classmate Luke after the former missed spring ball due to shoulder surgery? Will Watkins impress enough to carve a niche in the dime (six defensive backs) package? Will Russell earn team captaincy as a true junior? Can Atkinson harness his blazing speed to earn a spot -- and perform well -- on kickoff coverage, a unit in dire need of an upgrade from 2013? Can Brown -- purportedly better at man coverage than in the zone scheme favored by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco -- respond if called upon?

Best Case Scenario

Russell ranks among the nation's best, Riggs among the team's best, and both Luke and Butler make plays intermittently throughout 2014 before ascending to starter roles next season...Farley solidifies the nickel spot on second down and holds down a crucial spot in the team's goal-to-go defense, a role in which he excelled in 2012…Watkins impresses but is not needed due to Butler's emergence as a strong No. 4…Watkins joins Farley, Butler, and perhaps Atkinson as special teams demons, infusing speed (and aggression) into a dormant unit.

Worst Case Scenario

Russell is only average (or worse, as he was last September in a loss to Michigan -- read: Jeremy Gallon), Riggs disappoints, and Luke suffers through the normal struggles that befall most true sophomores in a new scheme. Butler can't crack the rotation due to his spring surgery and Farley plays in any way resembling 2013.

Humility is a play away at cornerback, and this group will be tested early, often, and throughout…

Out on a Limb

Riggs starts opposite Russell as the team's left cornerback and shifts inside to nickel in long-yardage situations, allowing Luke more time on the perimeter…Farley holds down a role in the nickel when the threat of a run (read-option) exists…Notre Dame's No. 3 cornerback, whoever it is, will play more snaps this season than at least three of the defensive front seven's starters.

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