HOOVER, AL — Five days ago, Matt Corral found out he’d be accompanying his head coach to SEC Media Days along with two other teammates.
That meant he had to buy a suit. He’d outgrown the one in his closet.
“I couldn’t even stretch my arms forward in the other one I had,” Corral admitted as a a grin spread across his face.
Corral’s had to do a lot of growing up this offseason. As a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, he’s now the face of Ole Miss’ program. There are four freshmen quarterbacks on the roster. With limited action in four games in 2018 under his belt, Corral is the de facto veteran in the room. The three guys competing to be Corral’s backup were playing high school football last fall.
Matt Luke said his young signal caller has been forced into a leadership role. Corral doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“It didn’t feel forced on me,” Corral said. “I wanted it this way. This is why I came here. Being a leader, doing what you are supposed to do and setting an example.”
Corral was peppered with different versions of the same question on Tuesday: What’s it like being on this stage at your age? Redshirt freshmen don’t come to SEC Media Days, he was told. He is the only underclassman to attend the event. Corral didn’t know his presence broke the norm. That may be partly because he hasn’t felt like a freshman in a long time.
“I really haven’t felt like a freshman since my 9th grade year,” Corral said. “My first high school football game is the last time I felt like a freshman.”
Corral’s path to Ole Miss was an adventure in its own right. He was committed to USC, then Florida before signing with the Rebels in December of 2017. With Shea Patterson transferring, rising senior Jordan Ta’amu was the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster. Luke needed a quarterback. He also needed a centerpiece in his first signing class as permanent head coach. The program needed a shot in the arm. Corral provided all of that. He committed 13 days after the NCAA committee on infractions issued its final ruling, levying scholarship reductions and an additional bowl-ban year. Corral wanted to play in the SEC. The two parties needed each other. The match made sense.
“His competitive fire and his competitive spirit, the players gravitated toward him,” Luke said. “I think he was thrust into a leadership role, and I really think he’s done a great job of competing and carrying himself the right way. As a former player, you want to be around guys that have that energy and that fire and that toughness, especially at that position.”
Luke bet on Corral to be the quarterback that helps the second-year head coach return his alma mater to relevancy in the toughest conference in college football. He bet on Corral learning how to mature and doing so quickly.
Corral backed up Ta’amu during the 2018 season, knowing he’d be handed the reins to the offense the next year. Part of growing up has been controlling the fire and spirit Luke spoke of. Corral plays with an edge, sometimes to a fault. Ta’amu got injured in the third quarter of the Egg Bowl and Corral was thrust into the spotlight. He was at the center of a fight that broke out on the final play of the third quarter when A.J. Brown and Jonathan Abram tussled past the whistle in the north end zone. Corral’s helmet was ripped off by Mississippi State safety Jamal Peters and the two had to be separated by teammates as the skirmish intensified.
Corral wasn’t ejected, but easily could have been. The passion that drives him deteriorated into rage. He knows that cannot happen in the future. In some ways, he’s learned to render that edge useful by watching the one Rich Rodriguez carries to work each day.
“He preaches it every day,” Corral said. “Coach Luke does too. He wants us to play with a hard edge and that savage mentality. It’s contagious. It isn’t just me. Everyone blows it up because of that Mississippi State game but behind the scenes it is other guys too. It rubs off. The young guys see it. I know we are young too, but were are the ones that are going to have to step up. I guess it is a different outlet and it needs to be only positive.”
Stability isn’t a luxury Corral has always been afforded. A coaching change at Florida helped sparked his de-commitment. He’s on his second offensive coordinator in as many years, learning yet another system. The offensive line that will block for him lost 127 combined starts from a year ago and the Rebels lost their top three receivers to the NFL. He is the face of a young football team and a rebuilding program facing an uphill climb. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I am grateful for this opportunity,” Corral said. “I am focused on the future and winning games for Ole Miss. This is why I came here.”
In the moments after the Egg Bowl mercifully ended in a 35-3 rout, Luke consoled Corral as he jogged off the field into the locker room. Luke told Corral to remember that moment, what he was feeling and allow it to fuel him.
“We are about to build something big,” Luke said. “You are the future.”
Those two have hitched their wagons together as they try to build Ole Miss into a winner. That future Luke referred to is now the present.
Proud @CoachMattLuke is our guy. pic.twitter.com/RZi6T1L7F1
— Connor Hennessey (@ConnorHennes) November 29, 2018