After an offseason of anticipation, Ole Miss fans finally get to see how the latest touted QB performs. It’s Matt Corral’s team … and time.

Go back to early December 2017.

Matt Luke was coming off a great week. Not only did he upset No. 16 Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl 31-28 (finishing the year with 3 wins in the final 4 weeks), but he accomplished his lifelong dream: being named the head coach of his beloved Ole Miss football program.

The very program where he, his dad and his older brother all played. The program he was an assistant coach for 10 years before being named interim head coach following the Hugh Freeze saga.

Good times, indeed. But as they say, what goes up, must come down.

Not long after having the interim tag removed, the NCAA finally announced the long-awaited penalties to the half-decade long investigation into recruiting violations. The result was, as expected, brutal.

Financial penalties, loss of scholarships, probation and a bowl ban were the big penalties. Secondary, however, was the fact that players would be free to transfer. One of the first to announce his intention to leave was QB Shea Patterson, the mega-star prospect once destined to lead the Rebels back to the promised land.

Luke essentially had 1 QB on the roster, senior Jordan Ta’amu. He knew he needed another, and not just a guy who could provide depth, but a face-of-the-franchise talent who could help turn around the struggling program. Someone to build around and rally around.

He found his answer nearly 2,000 miles away in Matt Corral, a fiery and emotional gun-slinger with a huge arm hailing from the sunny beaches of Southern California.

Turns out, Corral was looking for a place to finally call home, too.

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Corral, a 4-star All-American in high school, had been through a whirlwind recruiting process. One that saw him transfer high schools (from Oaks Christian to Long Beach Poly), then commit and decommit from multiple college programs.

“Well, first off, after I decommitted from USC – I was committed there my freshman year – I wanted to play in the SEC after that. I realized that football is much bigger out there. It means something. It means that much more” Corral told Saturday Down South.

Corral then committed to Jim McElwain and Florida in July of 2017, but his connection was short-lived. Just 3 months later, McElwain was fired. Corral was back on the recruiting tour.

“I was taking trips to LSU, Bama and Florida, and obviously I committed to Florida. Then the coaching change happened and things went sideways,” he said.

At the same time Luke was being named as the full-time HC, Florida hired former Mississippi State HC Dan Mullen, aka the QB Whisperer. Despite the commitment of Corral, Mullen wasted no time recruiting other QBs, which eventually led Corral to begin thinking about finding a new home. And quickly, too, because he planned to sign during the Early Signing Period.

The opportunity presented itself, and Luke was quick to strike.

On Dec. 8, 2017, Corral finished an official visit to Oxford. Five days later, he decommitted from Florida and announced he was committing to Ole Miss. Five days after that, he signed his NLI to play for the Rebels.

“Coach Luke always stayed in contact with me,” Corral said. “I was talking to him my sophomore year, but I never thought I’d end up here. He’s a real genuine person. He means what he says to you. You can tell by his voice and the way he talks to you he’s being genuine. He cares about the players and he puts us first, and that was big for me, personally.”

It also helped that Ole Miss had a great track record developing QB’s in recent years with Bo Wallace, Chad Kelly and Shea Patterson.

“I knew Shea. I knew Chad a little bit,” Corral said. “I know those guys are really well-rounded quarterbacks, and they’re elite. I just knew Ole Miss knew how to produce ’em. If those type of guys are coming through here, why not?”

Corral enrolled early, enabling him to take part in spring drills and begin learning Phil Longo’s offense. An offense that finished No. 2 in the SEC in total yards per game in 2017. It was an offense that relied heavily on the natural ability of the receivers, but it wasn’t overly complicated.

Against less talented teams, it was an offense that could pile up yards and points. Against equally or more talented teams, it would ultimately prove to be too elementary. It didn’t take much of an adjustment for Corral to understand Longo’s scheme.

“Mentally, nothing. My offense senior year (of high school) was a lot harder than what I had last year,” Corral said.

He didn’t beat out Jordan Ta’amu for the starting job last year, but not many really expected him to. Regardless of what some might say about Ta’amu’s legacy, he was a fine college quarterback who saved the Rebs from a second-half collapse in 2017.

The calm, even-keeled Hawaiian also provided a good example of what it takes to succeed at this level.

“I learned a lot from him. Not from a scheme perspective, the scheme was fairly easy that we were doing, but a lot off the field” Corral said. “Learning the in’s-and-out’s of having all eyes on you. Of being the quarterback. Helping me with my footwork, my drops, steps, little stuff like that.”

One thing he didn’t need much help with was learning how to be a leader.

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Leadership is as critical a tool to quarterbacks as accuracy and arm strength. Maybe the most critical. It didn’t take long for his Ole Miss teammates to sense Corral wasn’t a typical freshman.

“He became a veteran leader as soon as he got on campus, even as a young guy,” says junior wide receiver Braylon Sanders, who is expected to be one of Corral’s favorite targets this fall.

It certainly didn’t take Luke long, either. He probably saw it first. He certainly bucked the trend when he picked Corral to represent Ole Miss in Hoover.

“A lot of people asked me about bringing a freshman to Media Day, but his competitive fire and 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.”

Corral’s confidence isn’t an act, either. He is a natural leader. You can see it with his natural command of the huddle. You can see it the way he interacts with teammates on and off the field. You can see it the way he plays the game. He’s a very emotional player who wears his heart on his sleeve.

There have been times, however, where his fiery brand of play and emotion has put him in less-than-desirable situations. The most obvious example of this was the 2018 Egg Bowl.

Filling in for the injured Ta’amu against what was arguably the best defense in the country, Corral was playing pretty well, even throwing what looked to be a touchdown pass to A.J. Brown late in the 3rd quarter. After Brown caught the ball, a small scuffle broke out with and Corral found himself smack dab in the middle of it.

He saw Brown get punched in the face by Bulldogs safety Johnathan Abram and without hesitation he leaped to his teammate’s defense, eventually getting his helmet ripped off by Jamal Peters before the fight was broken up.

Ole Miss lost the game (by a rather wide margin), but Corral’s actions and the image of the wild Californian with war paint on having his helmet ripped off while defending his teammate would endure.

Matt Corral (2) reacts after his team was involved a fight against Mississippi State. Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, no head coach wants to see his young quarterback, a guy he had pegged as the future of the program and the guy who he’d for all intent and purpose unofficially tied his job to, in the middle of a scrum with his helmet ripped off. That’s not exactly something you’d see Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers do.

But man, if the team and fan base weren’t sold on Corral before, they sure as hell were now.

Why? A basic fundamental learned early in the game of football is that you always protect the quarterback. Very rarely do you see your quarterback protecting you. “He’s going to back up his teammates,” Sanders said. “He’s going to be protective of them. One of those guys that’s gonna have your back.”

Asked whether he regretted his involvement in the Egg Bowl altercation, Corral paused. You could tell he was weighing whether he would give the politically correct answer his coach would like him to give – yes, I shouldn’t have been involved, I need keep my composure, etc. – or, tell the truth. “No, sir,” he said. “I was just trying to defuse the situation with A.J., and that just happened. I was not going to allow that.”

On the surface, Luke can’t endorse Corral’s action. But deep down, part of him probably liked it. That’s the kind of act that will secure the loyalty of every player on that roster. That’s the kind of guy you follow unconditionally into battle. A foxhole guy who you know has your back, and you know you have his.

* * * * * *

Corral went into the offseason as the unquestioned leader of not only the offense, but the team. It was a big offseason, too, not only because of his new role as QB1 of an SEC West program, but there would be a new offense to master.

Longo left for North Carolina, and Luke brought in well-respected offensive guru Rich Rodriguez, formerly the head coach of West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona, to run the offense. Say what you will about Rodriguez’s up-and-down win-loss record, he gets offenses humming no matter the zip code.

So, how is the marriage between coach and player? So far, Corral loves it.

“Some would say I hate it, but I love it,” he said. “I love the way he coaches and I love his passion. Sometimes people may say he’s a bit overboard, but I understand where he’s coming from and I work well with that type of coach.”

The new offense appears to be more to his liking as well, which he feels better suits his natural skill set than what he played in last year.

“I’m actually really excited because now I get to read coverages. I get to make progression reads and coverage reads, and it’s really going to allow me to show everybody what I can do. And not only me, but my receivers as well, because now they gotta know coverages too.”

Sanders agrees that the fit looks natural.

“I think he’s a great fit,” he said. “With him knowing defenses and being such a smart player and leader on the field, he knows how to check us in and out of things. That’s going to be a big step for this offense. Matt’s got a cannon on him. His (throws) come out fast, and he’s a smart, smart guy and he really knows the game, knows defenses. He’s gonna be pretty good.”

Senior OT Alex Givens gave a similar vote of approval during SEC Media Days.

“He stepped up as a leader this spring,” Givens said. “As you see, he is a very feisty player, which you love to see that as an offensive lineman. He fits in with Rich Rod’s offense. Very athletic. He can run and make good decisions. He can throw the ball. We are super excited to have him in the huddle and be a voice for us and a leader at such a young age”.

The time is now for Corral.

He put the crazy recruiting days behind him. He paid his dues and learned as a backup last year. And now, he gets the keys to the offense. No, he won’t have the luxury of throwing to Brown or Metcalf, who were selected in the 2nd round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but he has a young and talented group around him that is ready to grow and succeed with him.

One thing is certain: It’ll be entertaining.

“Matt’s a very, very talented guy,” Luke said at SEC Media Days. “He can make all of the throws. He can throw off platform. He’s accurate from a bunch of different odd angles.”

Expectations aren’t extraordinary outside of the Rebels’ locker room. They are replacing NFL players with a young roster playing in new schemes on offense and defense. But make no mistake, this program has something that it hasn’t had in years: momentum.

Nowhere is that momentum more evident than on the recruiting trail, where the Rebels have the No. 21 recruiting class for 2020.

You can’t build a contender overnight, especially in the SEC West. It takes time, and it takes putting the right pieces in the right place.

Corral seems like the piece to build around. We’ve seen his natural tools, and now we get to see what he can do as the unquestioned Alpha leading an offense built for his skills.

It took time, twists and turns, but Matt Corral has found a home. Saturday, a new era officially begins.