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April 25, 2007

Penn State duo key to Lions' hopes

Derrick Williams signed with Penn State two years ago as Rivals.com's No. 1 recruit in the country. One year earlier, Rivals.com listed Anthony Morelli as the nation's second-ranked pro-style quarterback prospect.

Their decisions to enroll at Penn State led to speculation this dynamic duo would bring back memories of Todd Blackledge-to-Kenny Jackson, Kerry Collins-to-Bobby Engram and all the other great passing combinations in school history.

So far, it hasn't quite worked out that way.

Since they began their college careers, Morelli and Williams have connected for just one touchdown pass - a 20-yarder last fall in a season-opening victory over Akron. In terms of production, the Morelli-to-Williams pairing doesn't exactly compare to Michigan's Chad Henne-to-Mario Manningham or Louisville's Brian Brohm-to-Harry Douglas.

Penn State needs better results from Morelli and Williams to have any realistic chance of winning a Big Ten championship.

While that might seem like quite a burden to put on two players, it doesn't even compare to the expectations they have set for themselves.

"Anytime I come into a game, I think in my head I'm going to dominate," Williams said. "I don't know any receiver who wouldn't think that. If a receiver doesn't think that, they shouldn't be on the field."

Morelli possesses a similar level of confidence. He believes Penn State's 20-10 Outback Bowl victory over Tennessee proved the Nittany Lions are ready to compete for a national title.

"We have a lot of depth at a lot of positions, and our skill guys are just as good as anybody else's,'' Morelli said. "If we take it one play at a time every day, I think we have a shot."

That Outback Bowl performance also allowed the rest of the offense to gain confidence in Morelli.

Morelli went 14-of-25 for 197 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee. More importantly, he avoided the mistakes that haunted him for much of the regular season, particularly when he threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in the final three minutes of a 28-6 loss to Ohio State.

Penn State probably won't contend for a Big Ten title this year unless quarterback Anthony Morelli shows more consistency in conference games. Here's a look at how Morelli fared against conference foes as a first-year starter last season:
Ohio State162510603
Michigan State173722020
"I've got a lot of confidence now, knowing I can play a big game and win it," Morelli said. "It helped team morale also. Everyone just can't wait for the next big game to go out and prove ourselves again."

Morelli still needs to prove himself to a certain extent.

He completed only 53.9 percent of his passes last year and directed an offense that averaged fewer than 17 points per game against Big Ten opponents. Morelli threw six interceptions and only five touchdown passes in Big Ten competition.

But that hasn't diminished the enthusiasm teammates and coaches are showing toward his progress.

"He came out at the end of the year, showed what he could do, and I think there's been some momentum carryover," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "I think he's had a heck of a spring."

Junior cornerback Justin King pointed out that Morelli was still getting a feel for the offense last season as a first-year starter. King said Morelli now has such "sky high" confidence that he doesn't hesitate to throw a bullet in a third-and-12 situation.

Morelli also won't be shy about expressing his newfound brashness to opposing defenses.

"I'd never heard quarterbacks talk trash on the field," King said. "He's one of the first that I'd heard. It's a good feeling. I like that type of quarterback."

Penn State's talented wideouts give Morelli plenty of reason to feel comfortable. Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, Williams and Chris Bell give the Nittany Lions one of the nation's deepest collections of receivers.

Butler is a former walk-on defensive back who worked his way up the depth chart to compile 85 receptions over the last two seasons. Norwood grew up in State College, Pa., and has emerged as an excellent possession receiver for his hometown team. Bell capped an impressive spring by catching a pair of touchdown passes Saturday in the Blue-White Game.

But the Nittany Lions still need that one superstar receiver who stretches defenses and offers the threat of scoring every time he touches the ball.

The return of Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams makes Penn State one of only six Division I-A teams returning at least three players who caught 40 or more passes last year. Here's a look at the teams that fit that profile:
Chris Williams921,41515.412
Derek Dubois5380015.17
A.J. Harris7178911.17
Nick Cleaver5068413.74
Davone Bess961,22012.715
Jason Rivers721,17816.410
Ryan Grice-Mullen4677016.711
Dorien Bryant871,06812.36
Greg Orton5879013.65
Dustin Keller5677113.84
DeSean Jackson591,06018.09
Lavelle Hawkins4670515.35
Robert Jordan4657112.44
William Franklin4882917.36
Chase Coffman5863811.09
Martin Rucker535119.65
Deon Butler4863713.32
Jordan Norwood4547210.52
Derrick Williams4044011.01
Willliams certainly has the attitude to fill that void.

"I want to be the player who has big games and everything like that,'' Williams said. "I have the confidence and ability to make plays anytime."

He also has the talent.

Williams burst onto the scene as a freshman and immediately showed why he was the nation's top recruit.

As a receiver who occasionally lined up in the backfield, Williams averaged 11.7 yards each of the 57 times he touched the ball and had six gains of at least 20 yards. He delivered arguably the biggest play of Penn State's Orange Bowl championship season by making a 36-yard touchdown catch with 51 seconds remaining in a 34-29 victory over Northwestern.

He was on his way to earning freshman All-America honors before breaking his left arm while returning a kickoff midway through the season against Michigan.

Williams came back from that injury last season, but his big-play ability never returned. He caught 40 passes for 440 yards to rank behind Butler and Norwood in both categories. That 20-yard catch against Akron represented his lone touchdown reception of the season, though he also scored on a run from scrimmage and a punt return.

Although he couldn't offer a reason for why he didn't make the big plays that came so naturally his freshman year, Williams noted that perhaps he made too many catches near the sideline.

"People don't understand the other tackler is the sideline," Williams said. "It's not just getting away from (the defender). It's not stepping out of bounds. When you catch the ball and are working from the sideline and someone comes from the inside, there's not too much you can do. You either get hit or try to make a move. The sideline sometimes plays a bigger role than a regular player."

If Morelli really has boosted his confidence so much that he's willing to throw deep on a regular basis, Williams stands to benefit the most.

He already displayed his gamebreaking speed as a freshman, and may have become faster this year after running on Penn State's track team during the offseason. The Nittany Lions could help his cause by getting him the ball in open space more often.

The balance in Penn State's receiving corps might prevent anyone from putting together a 1,000-yard season, but a player with Williams' talent shouldn't have to settle for the numbers he put up last season.

Then again, as much as he talks about wanting to dominate every game he plays, Williams insists he wasn't upset with the way he performed a year ago.

"There wasn't too much more I could do," Williams said. "I tried my hardest. As long as I give my best effort, I'm going to be satisfied with myself."

If Morelli and Williams fail to improve upon their 2006 production, Penn State fans probably won't be satisfied with the Lions' 2007 season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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