During his first season as a starter, the junior struggled at times, and Penn State's offense struggled with him, amassing just 36 total points in losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Morelli came under fire for his play he completed 53.7 percent of his passes for 2,227 yards and the pressure only intensified in December after he contended that perceptions of his talent have been shaped largely by his former high school coach.
Pressure of that sort might seem impossible to ignore. But Morelli appears to be trying. He may even be succeeding.
Speaking Friday before the Outback Bowl's DeBartolo Team Luncheon in downtown Tampa, Morelli shrugged off the criticism and refused to back away from any of his previous comments.
It's over now. I'm moving on, he said. No matter what I say, people are going to criticize. It doesn't bother me.
I don't read the papers. It's not going to do anything good for me, he continued. No good is ever going to come out of watching the news channel or reading the newspapers. I just focus on my opponent each and every week.
At Penn State's Outback Bowl media day Dec. 14, Morelli blamed Penn Hills High coach Neil Gordon for saddling him with a reputation as a slow learner. Morelli said Gordon hindered his recruitment by spreading stories that he could not read defenses.
On Friday, Morelli said he didn't regret making his comments, about which Gordon has declined to comment.
That's over and done with now, the quarterback said. I just wanted to let people know where [the criticism] all started. I'm just focused on this game.
Public criticism is one of the occupational hazards of playing quarterback at a big-time school. Morelli's Outback Bowl counterpart, Erik Ainge, had problems as a sophomore. After shining as a freshman in 2004, he played erratically last year and was forced to split time at the position with Rick Clausen. The Volunteers went 5-6, their first losing season since 1988. Tennessee fans didn't take it well.
There's a lot of pressure, Ainge conceded. But it's still a game. You're still out there with your best friends running around, throwing the ball, scoring touchdowns. It's a business, but it's still a lot of fun. Pressure is feeding your family or trying to get a job after you've been fired and you know you've got to pay the bills. I think that's pressure. We're just out here having fun.
Ainge returned to form during the 2006 regular season, averaging 247 passing yards a game with 19 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Having completed a school-record 66.9 percent of his passes, he heads into the Vols' Outback Bowl showdown against Penn State looking as though he's on track for an NFL career.
Morelli has one more game this season in which to rebut some of the skepticism. He said he's been happy with the performance of the offense in practice, noting that there's not much more we could ask for than to have all this practice time to prepare for a big game like this.
Penn State's defensive players said they have noticed his improvement.
He looks like he's gaining confidence and maturing as a quarterback and feeling comfortable, linebacker Dan Connor said. He's starting to make a place for himself. At this point, he's going to take off, because he's got the skills to be a prime-time quarterback.