Matt Corral: The Heart of a Heisman
OXFORD, Miss. — College football fans from across the country are looking for that one Heisman moment, a performance that seals the deal for any of the top four candidates. That moment is still out there, according to pundits.
Sports writers and broadcasters are scouring statistics, wins and losses, the playoff picture, rivalry matchups, height and weights, NFL potential, and anything else that might give one candidate a competitive edge over the others.
Perhaps in the absence of that specific Heisman moment they’re all in search of, I suggest we look at the LEAST-Heisman moment, one that can occur in ANY player’s NCAA career — for that might be where true Heisman character reveals itself.
One such moment presented itself to Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral in the form of the 2019 season, a moment as unique to this group of Heisman Hopefuls as any ever shall be.
In 2019, Matt was selected by then-head coach Matt Luke to represent the team at SEC Media Days, a rare honor for a freshman.
That tells us that this kid possesses qualities that are extremely important for a leader, that he has poise and confidence, the ability to think on his feet and represent the program in stellar fashion.
It also would lead us to believe, sight unseen, that he is ultra-talented and a can’t-miss guy. He is the dark-haired “Sunshine” straight out of “Remember the Titans.”
OC: Longo to Rich Rod
When Corral arrived at Ole Miss, Phil Longo was his offensive coordinator. The Rebels later changed direction by bringing in Rich Rodriguez as offensive coordinator, the coach generally credited with discovering the “Zone Read” play.
The Zone Read is a running play predicated on a handoff read by the quarterback that could turn into a bootleg opposite the running back who’s moving laterally across the formation. If the defender chases the back, the QB keeps the ball and goes around the end. If he doesn’t chase, it’s a handoff.
The Read Option, another handoff read that’s now run out of the Pistol, and a number of other plays designed for a running quarterback were also installed, all of which were anti-quarterback and counter-productive for anyone whose mission is to develop a top passing quarterback — or for any quarterback who strives to become one.
These reads take up an exorbitant amount of practice time to perfect. Often, the idea of building the complete quarterback for the complete offense is all in the mind of a coach whose intent is magnifying his own existence.
Matt executed this offense as well as could be expected, but in many respects the passing schemes weren’t fundamentally sound. At times the Rebels would send a receiver into double coverage and expect Matt to complete the pass anyway. The passing game was one big mess. In the handoff read game, there were instances of indecision and the ball would get laid on the ground, killing drives. You keep it, no I’ll keep it, you got it?
Injury in Cal game changes Corral’s 2019 season
Four games into that 2019 season, against Cal, Matt had his ribs injured to the point that he couldn’t play, and in stepped fellow freshman John Rhys Plumlee.
Plumlee took Rich Rod’s offense to another level with his superb running ability, his reads on the handoff keys and ball-handling ability. Suddenly, they’d found a natural for the Rich Rod scheme.
Now the SEC had yet another star quarterback being groomed in Oxford. Plumlee would run for over 1,000 yards over the course of the 2019 season, an outstanding feat for a quarterback.
When Matt did get healthy again, he found himself languishing on the bench, untended, alone and seemingly forgotten. His starting position had been taken, likely along with it his status, his team, his self-esteem, possibly even his future as a quarterback.
And he was a long way from home, having come to Mississippi all the way from Ventura, California.
As his life’s dream seemingly swirled out of reach, there was never a public word of frustration, anger, or even displeasure. Corral made no angry tweets; there was no finger-pointing.
Corral was the first one on the sidelines to greet Plumlee when he came off the field. He was the consummate team player.
He just kept working, kept trying to prove himself in practice, kept hoping for another shot, kept his head up. He knew in his heart that he was an excellent quarterback, a quarterback in its truest sense, but not the style of quarterback that particular coaching staff was looking for.
As a true quarterback and an outstanding passer, Rich Rod’s offense reduced Corral to more of a running game coordinator, the one who decides who is RUNNING with the football instead of catching it, similar to what quarterbacks do at the academies.
Finally in the Egg Bowl, in the last game of the 2019 season, the coaching staff decided they needed a quarterback in the game who could throw any pass anywhere on the field if they were going to win.
Now THAT is who Matt Corral is.
After everything he’d been through — the down times, the uncertainty, the soul-searching, the loneliness and the feeling of separation that every former starter who’s been demoted has felt, the worthlessness, the long talks with his family members — he finally had a chance to rejoin his teammates on the field and lead them to what was almost a victory.
As every Rebel likely recalls, the twists of fate were far from done with Matt Corral, as an unsportsmanlike penalty after a touchdown grab and a missed extra point in the waning seconds would soon prove. And that was it for 2019, mercifully over, a one-point loss to arch rival Mississippi State with an uncertain future for Corral lying ahead.
All arrows appeared pointed toward John Rhys Plumlee as the likely 2020 starting quarterback for the Rebels, with some publications predicting him the SEC Player of the Year in 2020. Many predicted the transfer portal would be the only apparent option for the seemingly now down-and-out Matt Corral.
That season, that situation, a budding star taken down by injury and lost in a self-serving coaching scheme, and then left to wallow in his own frustration and disappointment — I dare say Matt Corral’s 2019 season is the farthest thing from a Heisman moment that any Heisman candidate has ever experienced.
That was Matt Corral’s reality, his world, and he was still only a redshirt freshman. Just imagine him being your son or your brother, and look at everything he had faced. As my great high school coach told us many times, it’s not far from the penthouse to the outhouse.
Will he or won’t he?
The question on everyone’s mind was, “Is Corral jumping ship, and if not, why not?”
That very year, LSU’s Joe Burrow had won the national championship and the Heisman Trophy after transferring from Ohio State. In 2018, Oklahoma transfer Kyler Murray won the trophy after leaving A&M. Before that, in 2017, OU transfer and former Texas Tech QB Baker Mayfield won the Heisman. All three were the first players selected in each of their respective NFL Drafts.
Transferring would certainly be the trendy thing to do and could realistically land Matt a spot at the top of the food chain. Get out!
And yet, nothing. Silence. Was he or wasn’t he? I mean, he’d be crazy to stay, right? No elite quarterback sticks around under these circumstances. They’re everywhere!
The Least-Heisman moment is that feeling of hopelessness you get after coming up short when you’ve given it your all and see no chance of redemption.
The Least-Heisman moment is when there’s no decision-maker bothering to even encourage you, nobody in your corner, the moment when it seems no one cares — because they’ve found their man. It’s an emotional beating that can engulf you.
Competitors feel it like anyone else, but the difference is, the great ones fight it. They fight for themselves, they fight for their brothers, they stand their ground to prove ALL their doubters wrong. They find their redemption.
This is a trait that many sportswriters and Heisman voters overlook simply because they’ve never experienced anything like it themselves. They’re so focused on the numbers that they never consider the heart of the young men they’re analyzing.
Enter Lane Kiffin
Then, to everyone’s surprise, a true former quarterback was hired as the new Ole Miss head coach, and he liked what he saw in this banished QB from California. Coach Lane Kiffin and Corral struck up a friendship and then began making their way implementing a real quarterback’s offense. Kiffin replaced the Run-Run Option with the Run-Pass Option (RPO).
But then a global pandemic would arrive in 2020, stealing valuable preparation time. It was a rocky start. Corral was wildly inconsistent — but also wildly spectacular. After a 1-4 start, the Rebels finished 4-1 and beat No. 7 Indiana in the Outback Bowl.
And then, Matt was once again back at SEC Media Days in 2021 where writers dug into him about the six interceptions he’d thrown against Arkansas and five against LSU the year before.
And as he has always done, Corral handled every question patiently, with grace and confidence. 2020 was but a learning year under Rebels’ first-year Coach Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, yet it was also the year this one-time pauper became an SEC prince — finishing as only the fourth SEC quarterback in history to lead the country in total offense per game.
He ranked third among the four college quarterbacks who scored an 88.6 or higher QBR rating. The other three were first-round NFL draft selections and No. 5 was a second-round pick. Although all had proven their worth and each had the option to play another year of college football, Matt Corral was the only one who chose to do so.
Corral and Rebels find success in 2021
The SEC coaches and writers were impressed, voting him the pre-season first-team All-SEC Quarterback over Alabama’s first-year QB Bryce Young.
And at the time of this writing, Matt has thrown over 300 passes in 2021 with only two interceptions. His team is poised to hit double-digit wins and possibly record the most victories in Ole Miss history. He has the Rebels ranked in the Top 10 of both polls. He avenged 2020 losses to his nemeses LSU and Arkansas without a single turnover.
He’s one of four ball carriers at Ole Miss who have eclipsed 500 yards rushing. And he’s done it on one leg for half the season, suffering what was feared to be a season-ending ankle injury against Tennessee when he notched 30 carries and put the Rebels on his back to leave Knoxville with a win.
His best receivers have been on IR quite frequently but he’s found a way through it all to keep his team winning. He is the unquestioned leader of the Ole Miss Rebels, a one-time cast-off turned captain of the mystery ship he just as easily and understandably could’ve jumped.
Ride, Captain, Ride.
So, keep looking for that Heisman “moment” if you must, but never forget college football history’s LEAST-Heisman moment, nor the inner faith and level of perseverance that it represents and the example Matt Corral has set for every college athlete.
While the candidates’ numbers may crisscross and confound and lead you astray, the justification of this man’s heart is the soundest assessment of all, and easily the most unique in the history of the Heisman Trophy. Let’s hope the Heisman voters use theirs.
(Feature image credit: Dan Anderson, The Rebel Walk)
David is the consummate true-freshman quarterback, first pioneering the position only a year after college freshmen were given varsity eligibility by the NCAA in 1972. In 1973, the left-handed all-state gunslinger from Sulphur, Louisiana started for the Texas A&M Aggies and earned the All-Southwest Conference Freshman of the Year award as selected by the league’s coaches. David is the first college quarterback ever awarded Freshman of the Year in the NCAA. He was only 17, and still holds the NCAA record as the youngest starting quarterback in college football history. He wore No. 8 at A&M in honor of one of his football heroes, Archie Manning.
In becoming the winningest quarterback ever at A&M, David was converted from a dual-threat QB to a triple option trailblazer. The two-time team captain led three record-breaking offenses that changed the direction of football at A&M forever, establishing once and for all the winning tradition that the Aggies had so-long desired.
As a high school head coach in Houston in the late ‘80s, David stationed his quarterback in the shotgun formation, having him reading defenses and throwing hot routes at a time when such offensive schemes were frowned upon by traditional fans and coaches. One of his quarterbacks tossed 57 passes in a single game, which stood as the all-time Greater Houston Area record for many years.
As you can tell from his bona fides, David is extremely qualified as our expert on all things Quarterback at Ole Miss. Enjoy his exclusive analysis only here at The Rebel Walk!