(In this case, "best" is defined by past accomplishments, not NFL potential or likelihood of ascent in 2013.)
Defensive LinemenFive regulars return with another trio of non-freshmen fighting for playing time in 5th-year senior Tyler Stockton, senior Justin Utupo, and sophomore Jarron Jones, none of whom appeared from scrimmage last fall (Utupo was on the Irish kick return team).
Best Player: Senior nose guard Louis Nix
Breakout Candidate: Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day
On The Spot: Junior defensive end/swingman Tony Springmann
Notes: In addition to Nix, junior Stephon Tuitt is among the nation's best defensive players and would rank as the best defensive lineman in the nation on every team in the country -- Notre Dame and South Carolina the notable exceptions.
Outside LinebackersThe team's deepest unit goes a legitimate three-deep at both boundary (Cat) and field (Dog/Drop).
Best Player: Senior boundary linebacker Prince Shembo
Breakout Candidate: Freshman Jaylon Smith
On The Spot: Junior boundary linebacker Ishaq Williams
Notes: Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted in April that Williams has earned approximately 20 more snaps per game thanks to his maturity and improvement -- that's basically a 12th starter defensively as he was already involved in the rotation and nickel packages…Much is expected of Shembo who was fantastic in 2012 sans for the season's biggest game in Miami…Smith immediately becomes the best athlete on the roster -- his adjustment to the physical nature of college football will determine overall playing time.
Inside LinebackersJust six scholarship players comprise the unit, the latest, Joe Schmidt, received his free ride after toiling for two seasons as a preferred walk-on.
Best Player: 5th-year senior Mike/Will linebacker Dan Fox
Breakout Candidate: Junior Mike linebacker Jarrett Grace
On The Spot: 5th-year senior Will linebacker Carlo Calabrese
Notes: Fox is the most-trusted by defensive staff members while Grace remains the Fran's choice despite no meaningful defensive snaps. Cal abreast ended p2012 playing his best ball but will have to tighten his game with a higher work volume this season.
SafetiesEight competitors though just one has started a college contest. The bulk of the unit will contribute on special teams.
Best Player: Junior boundary safety Matthias Farley
Breakout Candidate: Sophomore field safety Elijah Shumate
On The Spot: Senior boundary/field safety Austin Collinsworth
Notes: Four, possibly five will contribute regularly from scrimmage by season's end with true freshman Max Redfield making his presence felt. This is the team's best unit...for 2014.
CornerbacksLike the safeties, eight scholarship players are available with just two earning collegiate starts.
Best Player: Senior boundary cornerback Bennett Jackson
Breakout Candidate: Sophomore field cornerback Keivarae Russell
On The Spot: Junior field cornerback Josh Atkinson
Notes: Atkinson most show well in camp/ September to remain a two-deep option ahead of younger competitors, A tremendous athlete, Russell has stiff competition from returning senior Lo Wood.