STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Anthony Morelli spent weekends this summer fishing for bass. On weekends this fall, the Penn State quarterback hopes to avoid again becoming bait for critical Nittany Lions fans.

Expectations are as high as ever for the senior, but teammates and coaches say Morelli will give the rabid critics little reason to try to hook him this season.

"He's got more confidence and shows more of a comfort level," quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. "Everybody expected him, because he was a hotshot quarterback in high school, to walk on water."

Morelli has been a target for controversy and criticism since arriving in State College as a highly touted, rocket-armed recruit from Pittsburgh's Penn Hills High School.

At the end of last season, however, he left fans with a brilliant image of himself striding into this season with a strong win over 17th-ranked Tennessee in the Outback Bowl, where he was 14 of 25 for 197 yards and a touchdown.

"It just built a lot of confidence for the offense as a group," Morelli said. "It's a step in the right direction."

Morelli was criticized for many of Penn State's losses in its 9-4 campaign despite solid numbers. He completed nearly 54 percent of his passes, with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Morelli needs to pick up where he left off after the bowl victory, but has all his starting receivers back - Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams - an emerging leader in wideout Terrell Golden, and a big target in tight end Andrew Quarless.

All eyes, however, will be on Morelli - even the ones that count most in Happy Valley.

"I'm anxious to watch him," head coach Joe Paterno said recently at the Big Ten media day in Chicago. "I think Anthony had a lot of mishaps that were not his fault. We didn't really play well against a couple teams. We had a chance to beat some pretty good teams and we didn't because we made mistakes, not with Morelli."

Jay Paterno, the head coach's son, gave Morelli the same advice he gave other Penn State quarterbacks and even applies to himself.

"You have to have an inner sanctum," he said.

As Phil Jackson-like as that sounds, Jay Paterno said that Morelli had embraced the mantra and that it was helping as the Lions prepared for their Sept. 1 opener against Florida International.

Morelli said that he was feeling less pressure to please critics and that, having grown accustomed to potshots and critiques, he could now ignore harsh remarks.

"There's less on my shoulders," he said. "I'm used to it."

Joe Paterno "is one of the best coaches in the country," he said. "Everyone knows that. He wouldn't have a quarterback out there who didn't know what he was doing."

Jay Paterno said he had stressed to Morelli that no matter what Morelli did - throw touchdown passes or interceptions - there would always be critics.

"Playing quarterback at a major college level is tough," Jay Paterno said. "Brady Quinn, as good as he was" at Notre Dame, "what does everyone talk about? He didn't win a bowl game.

"As great a career as Chad Henne's had" at Michigan, "what's everyone talking about this off-season? Beating Ohio State. Someone's going to find fault. That's the nature of the beast."

The word around Penn State is that much of the season still rests on Morelli's shoulders. If that is the nature of the beast, as Jay Paterno said, Morelli said he did not mind anymore.

"I feel like we have to win some football games," he said. "I don't feel like anything is on my shoulders. I feel like we're a team and we do everything together. No individual player is going to make or break the season. That's the mind-set we're going to have."

Contact staff writer Shannon Ryan at 215-854-5503 or sryan@phillynews.com.