Penn State Spring Practice: Morelli ready to take his shot at quarterback
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Anthony Morelli has waited two years to be the man at Penn State. Whatever his legacy will be at the school, it began with the start of spring drills last week.
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Anthony Morelli is tall and slender, with wiry hair and a long nose. He enjoys hunting. He keeps conversation short, saying only what he should; what's there to talk about, after all? He will turn 21 this summer, and he has not yet been canonized like Michael Robinson or criticized like Zack Mills. During his first two years at Penn State, he has thrown 33 passes, none particularly meaningful. His bio remains empty, a whiteboard for speculation. Did we mention he enjoys hunting?
The next two years, beginning now, will define Morelli's college football career. Because of Robinson's departure, the Nittany Lions need Morelli as their quarterback. Coaches know all about his strong arm, and they've watched him perform in spot duty in the past two seasons, but their faith in him is precarious -- based on projection, not production. This unproven junior will largely chart the course of the season.
"I've waited two years," said Morelli, from Penn Hills. "Now, I'm getting a shot."
Penn State is one week into its spring-practice session, leading up to the April 22 Blue-White game, and this is where it begins -- Morelli's transition from backup to frontman. When the team begins drills with a lap around the field, Morelli leads the way, running alongside senior captain Paul Posluszny. The quarterback has organized Tuesday night practice sessions with his wideouts ("So it's like clockwork," sophomore receiver Derrick Williams said of the passing game's timing) and has forced himself to be more vocal with teammates.
Then it's just a matter of waiting for what counts, the performance.
Like in 2005, when Robinson took over for the departing Mills, Penn State enters without certainty at quarterback. But last season, the variables aligned perfectly: Robinson's mobility, coupled with the development of several young receivers, opened up the offense. In lockstep, the running game and offensive line play improved. By season's end, the offense ranked among the top 15 in Division I-A and Robinson rued about having to leave an attack in which all other skill players (except for tight end Isaac Smolko) returned.
When Morelli heard Robinson talk about that, he always allowed a faint smile.
"It's like he's got the big sports car now," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. "Mike got the thing tuned up and ready to go, but he left the keys in the car. Now it's Anthony's to drive."
The players surrounding Morelli -- most notably, Williams, tailback Tony Hunt and wideouts Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood -- create both great possibility and great pressure. Even Morelli's minimal collegiate experience has proven his NFL-caliber arm strength; still, he must refine his decision-making and handle the demands of a comprehensive playbook. And, because Penn State's offensive line must replace four of its starters, Morelli's success will depend on the speed with which that unit can redevelop.
"It's just a matter of how the talent jells," Paterno said. "Still, you've got to be excited with what we have talent-wise. The thing that was interesting, we walked into our meeting recently and somebody asked, 'Does anybody here graduate next year?' Nobody raised their hand. So this is a chance for this group to really make an impact on Penn State for the next two years."
By the official word, Morelli has yet to win the job. Still, he practices with the first team. Head coach Joe Paterno, speaking about his team's quarterback position, said that Morelli "has a chance to be a really good quarterback." Then, he mentioned backup sophomore Paul Cianciolo, offering only this: That name, Paterno said, "I can't pronounce."
Then again, Paterno has gained practice talking about -- and often defending -- decisions regarding Morelli. The coach opted against giving a redshirt season in 2004, when Morelli instead appeared in five games and threw 13 passes. By the following season, Morelli became the backup, yet Robinson's performance never allowed that to change.
Penn State, though, must now tailor its offense to fit its new passer. In 2005, the mobile Robinson ran for 806 yards on 163 carries -- only 11 fewer than Hunt, the starting tailback. Whereas the Lions used Robinson 10 to 15 times per game on running plays, Jay Paterno said, Penn State might now reduce that number for Morelli to four or five.
"I want to throw the ball," Morelli said. "I'd like to throw the ball 30-some times per game.
"I'm excited to get on the field and show everybody what I can do."
First Published April 1, 2006 12:00 am