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Rebels looking for young receivers to emerge against vaunted Cal secondary

The sense of relief in Matt Corral’s voice was palpable when he was asked on Tuesday about the idea of having wide receiver Braylon Sanders back for Ole Miss’ showdown with Cal this Saturday.

“It’s just another receiver I trust,” Corral said. “Me and Braylon have chemistry. We hang out a lot on and off the field. That’s my brother right there.”

Sanders has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury he suffered in the first half of the Rebels’ season-opening loss at Memphis. The junior wideout’s absence has certainly been felt despite Ole Miss winning each of the two games he’s missed. The vertical passing game has lacked inconsistency, and at times, has been insufficient. 

Corral has completed 63 percent of his passes for 578 yards with four touchdowns and one interception through three games. But outside of sophomore Elijah Moore, Corral has yet to find a reliable second target. Moore has 18 grabs for 278 yards and three touchdowns. The drop-off behind his large. Dontario Drummond is second on the team in receptions with four. Five receivers have recorded catches through three games, but the three of those have just six combined. Miles Battle, Jonathan Mingo and Demarcus Gregory, along with Drummond have yet to emerge as consistent threats. 

Some of that falls on Corral’s shoulders. His accuracy has been erratic at times and his decision making hasn’t always been dependable. There are times he makes the right choice, but the delivery is tardy.

“We have to be more consistent throwing the ball,” offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said. “It’s been frustrating because we have been close at times, but we also have missed some things. That part of it is our responsibility as coaches to help Matt (Corral) out a little bit more. Matt is a competitive guy, but there are some things in the game where it’s like ‘oh, we can’t have that,’ but there are other times where you think he’s getting it. There were a couple throws in the last game that showed his progress. He just has to be more consistent.”

Moore is easily Corral’s most dependable option. When the redshirt freshman signal caller is in doubt, the ball is likely going to the 5-foot-11 slot receiver. Trust is something Corral aims to garner with the younger collection of receivers like Mingo, Gregory, Battle and even the junior college transfer Drummond. Wide receivers coach Jacob Peeler thinks he has a number of guys that are close to taking the next step. He cited that Drummond has had three catches negated by penalties. Mingo had a couple of productive snags against Southeastern Louisiana. 

“Nothing can replace experience,” Peeler said. “You try to make practice like a game but it isn’t the same. I think they are taking the steps necessary to move in the right direction.”

Peeler knew he had his work cut out for him heading into the 2019 season. Tasked with replacing the likes of A.J. Brown, D.K. Mrtcal and Damarkus Lodge, Peeler knew it would be an arduous process.

“I know everyone wants to compare them to A.J. and D.K., but it took a while for those guys to become what they are now,” Peeler said. “It’s hard sending babies out there, but in a couple years we want those guys to be at their best. I think they will continue to progress.”

The passing game will have to take a large leap from where it has been through three games if the Rebels hope to beat Cal. The Bears boast one of the best secondaries in college football, a unit that returns essentially the same personnel from a 2018 version that picked off 21 passes. Jaylinn Hawkins led the group with six interceptions and returns as a redshirt senior. The Cal secondary is howling opponents to complete a 54 percent completion rate through three games and 184 yards per game. Traveon Beck and Camryn Bynum have recorded each recorded an interception. Peeler, who coached at California from 2013-2016, knows them well.

“Every one of those kids was there when I was there,” Peeler said. “Ashtyn Davis was actually a receiver before moving to defense. Hawkins was recruited as a receiver. The rest of them, Bynum, Josh Drayden are all very good. Their accolades are certainly well deserved.”

Sanders’ return is certainly well-timed given what Ole Miss is up against this weekend. But who, if anyone, will emerge as a consistent threat behind he and Moore? Drummond appears to be the closest as it currently stands. Battle saw action in four games last year. Mingo and Gregory are still getting their first taste of major college football. 

“I know Coach Peeler has been working them in practice hard on making the right play on every single play,” Corral said. “I just have to get them the ball in the right places at the right time. We have to do a better job of that.”

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