Michigan State returns just about everybody off the most ferocious defense in the Big Ten last year, but the Spartans do have to plug a gaping hole up front.
Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy turned in an All-America junior season in 2011 and opted to bolt for the NFL draft. The pressure is on senior Anthony Rashad White to pick up Worthy's production, and White is embracing that hefty challenge this offseason.
"I have a lot to prove still," he said. "But I've been working my butt off to show everybody that I'm a great player and that I can step up and be a leader on the D-line."
White gave a glimpse of his potential in the final game of his junior season.
Starting for injured nose tackle Kevin Pickelman in the Outback Bowl against Georgia, White posted career highs with seven tackles and three tackles for loss. Most importantly, he blocked a Bulldogs' field-goal attempt in overtime to preserve Michigan State's victory.
"I didn't know if I had gotten enough of it to stop [the kick] from going in," White said of his block. "Then I had to look to see where the ball was because they could have picked it up. When it was over, I can't really describe the feeling. It was just amazing."
White doesn't play the same position as Worthy. At nose tackle, he'll be asked to do some different things. But he boasts the strength, talent and experience to pose a similar disruptive threat in the middle of the defensive front.
And White also has been anointed by Worthy. Asked by ESPN.com in January who would step up and fill his role in 2012, Worthy said he expected White "to be no less than amazing. I expect him to come in and be just as explosive and have just as much if not a bigger impact on the game than me."
Explosiveness is something White still needs to work on, so he has focused his efforts this winter on getting off the line of scrimmage more quickly. He's learning how to better anticipate the snap count, and he's trying to get faster by shedding some pounds. The 6-foot-2 White weighed in around 327 pounds for the Outback Bowl and says he is down to 315 now thanks to some improved eating habits. His target weight for the season is 310.
White started four games last year but was bothered in the middle of the year by a deep thigh bruise injury. He finished the season with 25 total tackles and often went head-to-head with the league's best centers in a very strong year for centers in the Big Ten. The first time White faced Wisconsin center Peter Konz taught him a lesson.
"He was great, and that helped me out a lot," White said. "That told me I needed to step up because I wasn't where I needed to be."
White said Worthy has stayed in his ear and told him this is White's year to dominate. With strong defensive ends in William Gholston and Marcus Rush and a veteran linebacker corps, White won't have to carry the load for the entire front seven. But if he can come close to replicating what Worthy did in the middle, then Michigan State's defense figures to have another outstanding year.
"Winning the [Legends Division] title and the bowl game was great," White said. "But we want to go to the Rose Bowl. So we still have a lot of work to do."