It was 6 p.m. and Ole Miss was wrapping things up during spring ball. The quarterbacks were drawing their plays on the board when Matt Corral turned to grad assistant Matt Holecek with one final question for the day.

“5:30 tomorrow?”

By “5:30,” Corral was referring to 5:30 a.m. For the previous week and a half, Corral and Holecek developed a bit of an early-morning routine together. Before the rest of the team arrived, they’d watch film of Ole Miss’ new offense. It started during spring ball when Corral was, as he told SDS, “so pissed” that he couldn’t master Lane Kiffin’s offense.

Kiffin’s arrival meant it was Corral’s 3rd offense (and 3rd offensive coordinator) in as many years at Ole Miss. Kiffin’s offense was more defined than Phil Longo’s system from Corral’s freshman year because that didn’t get into details of reading mixed coverages. Longo’s system was more about reading 2-high and 1-high safety looks. For Corral, Kiffin’s offense was “night and day” compared to the offenses run by Longo and Rich Rodriguez, who was Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator in 2019. Rodriguez’s system was run-heavy with a lot of rolling out of the pocket and not a lot of progressional reads, which admittedly wasn’t an ideal fit for Corral’s skill set as a pass-first quarterback with mobility.

Kiffin’s offense had everything — reading complex coverages, high tempo, the ability to stretch the field, a clear explanation why something was being run, etc. That’s why Corral decided in the spring that he needed to devote extra time to learn it.

When Corral got Holecek’s attention to confirm the 5:30 a.m. film session, fellow Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee’s ears perked up. He wanted in, too. After all, they were competing for the chance to run Kiffin’s offense. Initially, Corral was upset by this development. He wanted the 1-on-1 time with Holecek to get an edge on Plumlee, who exploded onto the scene and took over Corral’s starting job running Rodriguez’s system in 2019. Plumlee’s 2019 classmate Kinkead Dent also joined the early-morning film sessions.

The routine became second nature for Corral and the younger signal-callers. “That was just us raising the bar for each other,” he said. Every day, 5:30 a.m. film session. No need to ask. No need to run it through offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby or Kiffin, who usually arrived closer to 6:30 a.m. Just get the Kiffin offense down, by any means necessary.

Fast forward a few months to the start of the Kiffin era in Oxford and it’s safe to say those early-morning film sessions are paying off.

Heading into Saturday’s showdown against Alabama, Corral ranks No. 3 in FBS in quarterback rating (211.9), No. 3 in yards per attempt (11.9), No. 2 in completion percentage (76.7%) and he’s even No. 1 in ESPN’s QBR (94.8). Early-season foes like Kentucky coach Mark Stoops already said he “doesn’t think there’s any doubt” that Corral is well on his way to being one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks.

A lot has changed since Corral’s frustrating start in Kiffin’s offense, and not just his new early-morning routine of a film session and doubling up on breakfast with a foundation of 3 boiled eggs and oatmeal (they made a rule that Corral couldn’t show up to a meeting without food because he was underweight this offseason). Nothing about Corral’s 2020 play suggests he’s operating in his 3rd system in as many seasons. Nick Saban, who watched Jalen Hurts play for 3 offensive coordinators in his 3 years at Alabama, took note of Corral’s fit in Kiffin’s offense.

“I can’t speak to how this has worked,” Saban said. “All I know is, this guy is playing really, really well in this system.”

This system, this quarterback room, this coaching staff … it finally feels like home for Corral.

* * * * *

After Ole Miss fired Matt Luke following the bizarre loss in the 2019 Egg Bowl, Corral had a decision to make. Should he stay in Oxford or find a new place to use his 3 remaining years of eligibility? During the coaching search, someone in the program told Corral, “you don’t want to leave. You’re gonna be excited about this new hire.”

Soon after that, Corral found out that the new hire was as splashy as it gets. It was Kiffin, AKA the guy who had 5 different first-team all-conference quarterbacks during 6 total seasons as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Florida Atlantic’s head coach. Still, there was some skepticism.

“Even when Kiffin was hired, I didn’t expect anything of it,” Corral told SDS. “I didn’t understand what that meant for me until I had people give me background information, and I was like, ‘OK, this could be good for me.’”

It wasn’t just that Kiffin’s system was designed to emphasize the downfield passing game more than Rodriguez’s system. Corral’s mom, Elizabeth, pointed out there was also small-world connection to Kiffin.

She remembered that her son was in 7th grade when he attended “Camp Kiffin.” At that time, Kiffin was still the head coach at USC, which is about an hour southeast of Corral’s hometown of Ventura (Calif.). Kiffin ran the camp at USC’s practice field, where Corral and his fellow campers split off into teams — he was on the Dolphins — and played a version of organized backyard football.

Fitting, it was, that same year was when Corral took a liking to Johnny Manziel, who emerged as the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in 2012. That’s why Corral originally wore No. 2, though he later backed off wanting to follow in Manziel’s footsteps after his off-the-field issues.

On the field, Corral earned plenty of lofty comps as a 4-star recruit. At Elite 11 Camp in 2017, Trent Dilfer compared him to Brett Favre. Elite 11 president Brian Stumpf said Corral “might have strongest arm in camp since Matthew Stafford.” Quarterback trainer and ESPN analyst George Whitfield said of Corral’s arm, “right now, he throws the ball one tempo, and that is heat. The challenge is going to be to get him to throw different types of passes. Custom service. Not everybody ordered their plate with hot sauce.”

In 2020, experts have some different thoughts on Corral’s refined skill set. Three years after Corral flipped his commitment from Florida to Ole Miss when Dan Mullen took over in Gainesville, Mullen watched the former Elite 11 standout put up 445 yards of offense against the Gators’ defense. That included a 46-yard dime that Corral dropped to Dontario Drummond for the first points of the Kiffin era.

“You saw it. He’s got a strong arm. He can really throw the ball around. Has good size. To me, it’s his ability to extend plays and scramble around, the athletic ability,” Mullen said of Corral. “You look even at the game that we played against him, he had such a big day scrambling. He converted 3 or 4 first downs by scrambling on 3rd-down-and-long situations. It’s his ability to extend plays that makes him really dangerous.”

Stoops learned that all too well the following week. Even on a play in which Kentucky had 3rd down covered and Corral took a big hit to prevent a conversion with his legs, he still managed to dump it off to Snoop Conner to pick up the 1st down.

In addition to converting key 3rd downs and running for 51 yards against Kentucky, Corral completed 24-of-29 passes for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns, including a game-winning score in overtime to help clinch the first victory of the Kiffin era. It was a performance that left Stoops searching for answers.

“I don’t know if you’re going to contain (Corral). Ole Miss is going to be explosive at periods of every game. It’s just the nature of their tempo, they’re explosive and he’s an outstanding quarterback,” Stoops said. “Obviously we didn’t have the answer for containing him. That’s for sure.”

Kiffin, on the other hand, seemingly has all the answers for how to get Corral to thrive. If there are checks that need to be made at the line of scrimmage with certain plays, Corral has the freedom to make that call. There’s a mutual confidence between quarterback and head coach. Much like there aren’t limitations to a Kiffin offense, there aren’t limitations to what Corral can do in it.

One of the main reasons that Kiffin took the job at Ole Miss was because of the offensive weapons to work with. He popped in a game or two of 2019 Ole Miss and liked what he saw. Between having young backs like Conner and Jerrion Ealy with young receivers like Elijah Moore and Jonathan Mingo, Kiffin also knew that he had plenty to work with at the quarterback position.

Two games in, Kiffin’s assumption looks spot on. It’s early, but there’s one question that Kiffin doesn’t have the answer to just yet.

How does he see his personality in Corral?

“That’s a good question. I hadn’t really thought about that. I do feel that (chemistry). He’s easy to get along with. I don’t know if it’s kind of a California thing,” Kiffin said. “He’s obviously playing well, but just like with John (Rhys Plumlee), they’re really easy to be around. I enjoy being in meetings with them every morning.”

Needless to say, the Kiffin-Corral relationship is off to a different start than the Rodriguez-Corral relationship.

* * * * *

According to Corral, there were 3 things that Rodriguez said every day when he was the Ole Miss offensive coordinator in 2019. Let’s just say the first 2 were, um, NSFW and No. 3 was “throw the seam into Cover-3.”

The last thing was what earned Corral a spot in Rodriguez’s doghouse, especially in their first week together. It was a pre-determined read based on the coverage he saw at the line of scrimmage. Admittedly, it took a bit to get that down.

But feeling like himself in Rodriguez’s system never really happened. It didn’t matter that Ole Miss made Corral the first freshman representative ever at SEC Media Days in 2019. After Corral suffered some bruised ribs in a loss to Cal, Plumlee was named the starter for the Alabama game and he was QB1 for the rest of the season under Rodriguez. Corral still got meaningful snaps when Ole Miss found itself in need of a heavier reliance on the passing game, but ultimately, it was a vastly different offense from the one he signed up to play in.

Corral’s “night and day” schematic comparison for Rodriguez’s offense vs. Kiffin’s also applied to his production. With Kiffin, Corral already has 2 games with 300 passing yards, which never happened in 10 games in Rodriguez’s offense. The same goes for games with 3 passing touchdowns, which Corral accomplished in each of his first 2 games under Kiffin but never did with Rodriguez. And in Rodriguez’s run-heavy system, Corral had 1 game with 50 rushing yards … which he already hit in both of his first 2 games with Kiffin.

There was, however, a key takeaway during Corral’s season with Rodriguez — he got meaningful SEC reps. That’s something he didn’t get as a true freshman as Jordan Ta’amu’s backup in 2018. That is, until he entered his first Egg Bowl in the second half after replacing an ineffective Ta’amu early in the 3rd quarter. That game turned out to be Corral’s most noteworthy moment in 2018, but it wasn’t because of a throw or anything like that. It was his role in a benches-clearing crawl that made the rounds.

(Yes, he regretted how that played out, but no, he doesn’t mind standing up for his teammates if he believes they’re being disrespected.)

What hasn’t changed no matter what offense he’s in is that Corral still goes to the beat of his own drum. The tattoo-sleeved, bandana-wearing quarterback won’t be confused for copying anyone’s style. Well, perhaps with the exception of 1990s rapper, Coolio. When Ole Miss took the field Week 1, Corral’s braids were a popular topic of conversation:

Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

What led to that look, you ask?

As Corral says, his hair was getting long before the season-opener, and he had to do something with it. He usually doesn’t get it cut in Oxford because he hasn’t found a local barber who properly cuts his hair on top with scissors (he gets it faded on the sides), which is why he waits until he goes back to the West Coast. During the pandemic, the cross-country trips to California have been limited.

He showed up for practice before the first game with the braids and got some looks, so he took them out. But when he arrived at practice the next day without the braids, a few Ole Miss defensive players told Corral, “Why did you take them out? You should’ve kept them in.” Long story short, Corral got talked into the braids for the season opener against Florida.

Why didn’t he stick with them in Week 2 against Kentucky? For starters, he said the braids weren’t easy to maintain, and perhaps more importantly, he didn’t want to give Kiffin any reason to think he was being a distraction. Corral went to the barbershop before the Kentucky game and told himself, “if they mess up my hair, I’ll just buzz it.”

Fortunately for Corral, he didn’t have to buzz the rest of his hair, and he ended up leading a comeback win. It marked Ole Miss’ first SEC road win since Oct. 13, 2018 against Vandy, and it was the program’s first time putting up 35 points in consecutive SEC games since 2017.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” Corral said. “This is the closest I’ve ever felt to a team. This is the closest I’ve ever felt to a coaching staff. They understand us, we understand them. They respect us, we respect them. They really treat us like pros. When we’re slipping, they’re gonna let us know. They won’t talk down to you, but they’re gonna let you know.

“That’s something I’ve never experienced before until now, and I wouldn’t want it any different.”

It’s certainly not the path that Corral once envisioned for himself. It wasn’t long ago when Corral decided he wanted to play in the SEC and he narrowed his focus strictly to schools that were thousands of miles from home. Go figure that the California native had never surfed until this past summer when the quarterbacks took a couple of trips out on freshman Kade Renfro’s boat. Two tries was all it took for Corral to get on his feet wake surfing. “Best time I’ve ever had,” he said.

It took Corral 3 attempts to find his footing as an SEC quarterback. Even against an SEC-only schedule, Corral is well on his way to leading Ole Miss to its best offense since the peak of the Hugh Freeze era in 2015. That was also the last time that the program earned a postseason berth.

“We’re always talking about respect. We don’t get it. Ya know, we don’t deserve it. People always talk down on Ole Miss,” Corral said. “That’s slowly starting to change.”

What’s quickly changed is the perception of Corral and the Ole Miss offense with Kiffin. A year ago against Alabama was Plumlee’s first career start. An injured Corral watched Plumlee and Grant Tisdale throw for touchdowns that day. No longer wondering when his next start will come, Corral is instead looking forward to testing this offense against an Alabama team that he said is the best in the country. There’s a different sense of confidence with Kiffin at the controls.

There’s no guarantee that Corral will continue to be among the nation’s best in several key statistics, or that he’ll lead an offense that flirts with 40 points on a weekly basis. He’s seen how fleeting success can be. But if his first 2 games with Kiffin are any indication, one thing is clear; he’s just getting started at Ole Miss.

“Oxford is my home,” Corral said. “I’ve got a great foundation right here. Everything I need is right here.”

Well, except for a barber he trusts.