- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of the University of Tennessee
OXFORD, Miss. — A dispirited Matt Corral, fearful his days as Ole Miss’ starting quarterback might be numbered, stood in the corner of the Razorback Stadium locker room in October.
Right by his side was Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, wearing the kind of expression that anybody who’s ever played for him or coached with him knows well.
“It was just me and him,” Corral recounted. “He’s looking at me all cool and calm, almost like you would have never known if we won or lost.”
Make no mistake: Ole Miss lost that day to Arkansas, 33-21, and Corral suffered through a dreadful performance featuring six interceptions and a lost fumble.
“Who wouldn’t chew my ass out? I mean, what coach wouldn’t? But not Coach Kiff,” said Corral, who also occasionally refers to his coach as simply Kiff. “He just told me that I was still the dude, that he had my back, that we were going to get it fixed and that he was getting ready to go tell the media guys the same thing.
“That’s who he is, no matter the situation … always real.”
And so is the relationship between Corral and Kiffin, two California “dudes” whose eventful and drama-filled paths — ones that oftentimes made it convenient to draw preconceived notions about them — brought two of college football’s most interesting characters together in Mississippi.
“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers,” quipped Kiffin, referencing the old Garth Brooks tune. “I guess we’ve been good for each other.”
They were all set to begin their second season together on Monday night, when Ole Miss takes on Louisville in Atlanta (8 p.m. ET ESPN and ESPN App), but Kiffin will miss the game after testing positive for COVID-19. So while the quarterback will take the field without his head coach, Corral’s growth as a player is a direct result on their work together. In fact, they’ve gotten so close that Kiffin told Corral of his positive test before anyone else on the team.
Corral, the first-team quarterback on the Preseason Coaches All-SEC team, can’t begin to count the ways he has matured as a quarterback under the tutelage of Kiffin and Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. But the biggest step toward establishing himself as one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks will be cutting down on his miscues. Corral was responsible for 17 of the Rebels’ 18 turnovers a season ago as a redshirt sophomore, including 14 interceptions.
But in his first season as the starter and after learning a new system under Kiffin and Lebby, Corral led the country in total offense (384.3 yards per game). He also finished as the only FBS player with more than 500 rushing yards (506) and more than 2,700 passing yards (3,337 yards) — and did it in 10 games.
Not only that, but going back to 2015, Corral joined a select few in college football to have passed for more than 3,300 yards and rushed for more than 500 yards in the same season. Among the others in that exclusive club: Trevor Lawrence, Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott.
“If Matt limits his turnovers, and unless I’m an idiot, he’s going in the first round [of the NFL draft] and probably the top half of it,” said Kiffin, who was blown away the first time he saw Corral throw the ball.
“He was throwing it 70 yards with accuracy, and he’s not a huge guy [6-foot-2, 205 pounds]. But his whole upper body is loose, really loose. When he does our flexibility test where he puts his arms back, it’s amazing how far back he can go. He’s also a very good quarterback scrambler. He’s not going to be the fastest guy at the [NFL] combine, but he’s got really good feet and is slippery once he starts running.”
The Kiffin-Corral relationship started like most do with Kiffin, who has never been one to rush right into anything. That is, maybe with the exception of stirring it up on Twitter or, for that matter, stirring it up — period.
Hence the childhood nickname “Lane the Pain,” which was shortened to “LP” by his sister, Heidi, to sub as Kiffin’s caller ID any time he would call on her cellphone.
Lately, Kiffin jokes that the only trouble he has gotten himself into is leaving his garage door open at the new home he bought at the Country Club of Oxford.
“I got some letter from the [homeowners association] saying I’d violated rules by leaving my garage door open one day,” Kiffin said incredulously. “Why would they even care if I leave my garage door open?”
It took some time, but Corral — now on his fifth different college head coach that he had either committed to or played for — came to realize how much Kiffin cared about him. When Kiffin took over at Ole Miss in December 2019, Corral guesses Kiffin probably only said about 15 sentences to the whole team the first month or two on the job and “maybe only about two of them were to me.”
Now, not a day goes by that Corral isn’t popping into Kiffin’s office to chat, texting him about some new formation or following him around on the sideline as soon as he comes out of a scrimmage to soak up anything and everything he can from a guy who was hired to be an NFL head coach at the age of 31.
“That’s ridiculous. He was only nine years older than I am right now, but he’s changed my whole perspective of how I approach the game,” Corral said. “Really, he and Coach Lebby both have. They opened up my mind to where I see things I never did before, especially now that I’m in my second year with them.
“Plus, Coach Kiff gets me, and I get him.”
To say they relate is putting it mildly. Kiffin’s dream coaching job was USC, and he wound up being fired on an airport tarmac by the Trojans in 2013. Corral, who grew up in Ventura, California, had always dreamed of playing for the Trojans, and he committed there when he was a freshman in high school. But an altercation with the son of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, California, squashed those dreams. Corral, who wasn’t the one with the famous father, wound up transferring to Long Beach Poly to finish his high school career, and USC ended up pulling the plug on his offer.
“Not one punch was thrown,” Corral said of the incident with the younger Gretzky. “But it gets out there publicly like it was a brawl, and all of a sudden, I have anger issues and character issues.”
Corral’s father, Peter, has seen the way his son has blossomed under Kiffin.
“Lane Kiffin coming to Ole Miss was a godsend for Matt,” Peter said. “Matt blossomed in every way when Lane came. They just connected. Matt is an easy-going kid, pretty laid-back but always competitive. He’s the youngest of three boys, and his big brothers never took it easy on him. He learned to fight back, despite what anybody else thought about him, and found an ally in Lane.”
Corral, who will turn 23 in January, said his relationship with Kiffin has grown as much off the field as it has on the field, which has allowed to Corral to be himself and subscribe fully to Kiffin’s stated motto: Who says you can’t have fun and still win football games?
“Maybe it’s a California thing, but I love how calm he is, especially on game day, but also how structured everything is here,” Corral said. “We go hard every day, and you better do things the right way. But it’s fun. He makes it fun, and you gotta love Coach Kiff’s dry wit.”
Case in point: The day after Kiffin consoled Corral in that somber Arkansas locker room last season, the coach waltzed into the quarterback meeting the next day and went into full Twitter troll mode on Corral.
“At least you didn’t break my ex-father-in-law’s record,” cracked Kiffin, referring to the NCAA-record nine interceptions former Florida quarterback John Reaves threw during a 1969 loss to Auburn.
Corral received a similar message via text from legendary Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning.
“I told him he just tied me, that he didn’t beat me,” joked Manning, who once threw six interceptions in a 31-0 loss to Tennessee in 1968. “But that’s what is impressive about Matt. Even after some of those games didn’t go as well as he wanted them to, he kept firing, which is what you’ve got to do.”
One of the programs Kiffin implemented at Ole Miss is “Get Real Wednesdays,” during which players get up in front of their teammates and share things about their lives. Usually, it’s just the players. But when Corral took his turn, Kiffin was in the room.
“It’s the first time I’d heard his whole story, what happened at Oaks Christian, how USC bailed on him, then his commitment to Florida and how that fell through,” Kiffin said. “I did not know all of that, so you feel even more for him after hearing that and what he’s overcome.”
One of the things Kiffin said he loves most about Corral is that he is always up for a challenge.
Back in late January when, in Kiffin’s words, the coach’s stomach got so big that his three kids named it “Nikki,” he decided to go on a 10-day cleanse, with no alcohol, no red meat and no bread but with an intense exercise regimen.
“I felt so good that I kept going, and that was seven months ago. I’ve lost 32 pounds of fat,” Kiffin said.
Corral, inspired by his coach’s weight loss, told Kiffin that he was going to match him and abstain from alcohol all season.
“He knew how much better I felt and how healthy I was and said he was going to do the same,” Kiffin said. “That shows discipline, leadership and how serious he is about having a great season.”
It’s not all football with Kiffin and Corral, either.
On the morning of Ole Miss’ final preseason scrimmage/mock game two Sundays ago, Kiffin scooped up Corral and took him to church. For two guys from California, they said it was a treat to worship in what Kiffin calls “Country South” style at Community Church Oxford during a nondenominational service held at a middle school auditorium in town.
“You know you’re in the South when the preacher’s name is Fish, and he wears a hat and T-shirt,” Kiffin said laughing. “There’s City South versus Country South, and that’s Country South. Doesn’t get any better.”
Kiffin is confident Corral will be significantly better this season when it comes to his decision-making on the field and not thinking he has to do too much. A big part of it is that the Rebels should be improved defensively with several new additions, including transfers, and senior safety Otis Reese being available all season. Ole Miss finished close to the bottom nationally in most defensive categories a season ago.
“After those first three games [when the Rebels gave up 51, 41 and 63 points], Matt probably felt like we had to score on every series,” Kiffin said. “Remember, the Arkansas game came right after the Alabama game where we scored 48 points, gained 647 yards and still lost by 15.”
Manning also felt Corral’s pain last season in watching him try to match score for score. The Rebels gave up more than 30 points in seven of their 10 games.
“You can definitely play the position differently when your confidence level goes up about your defense,” Manning said. “That’s not a good feeling when you trot out there and say, ‘We’ve got to get seven points on this drive, seven points on the next one and seven points on the next one just to stay in the game.’ That’s a hard way to play the quarterback position.”
Corral, to his credit, never made excuses. He also threw five interceptions in the 53-48 loss to LSU, but he accounted for 33 touchdowns on the season (29 passing and four rushing) as Ole Miss broke the SEC record for total offense in conference games (562.4 yards per game).
“Hey, you move on,” Corral said. “I’m not going to let one game or one thing or one experience define me.”
It’s that kind of attitude that has endeared Kiffin to his quarterback, who much like Kiffin during his younger years as a coach, has learned from his mistakes, grown from them and not allowed perception to become reality.
“People assume a lot of things about you when you get fired somewhere else, even on a tarmac, or had a rocky ending somewhere or have an issue at a high school and then go to another high school or when you’re committed somewhere and that falls through,” Kiffin said. “But I’ve had no issues with Matt, nothing at all.”
Kiffin has even wondered if Corral’s sleeve tattoo on his right arm has caused some to look at him differently.
“Coaches don’t normally say this, but people also probably have a certain perception of him because he has a sleeve tattoo, especially in the South,” Kiffin said. “It’s the quarterback. They don’t care when the left defensive end or the receiver has it. But when it’s the quarterback, it’s like, ‘Oh, boy, he must be wild, hard to deal with.’ “
It’s worth noting that Corral’s tattoo includes a passage from the Isaiah 40:31: “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”
Kiffin has a harsh evaluation process for quarterbacks coming to play in the SEC who aren’t from the SEC footprint. It didn’t take him long to realize that Corral checks all of the boxes.
“You’ve got to have a certain leadership personality, in my opinion, to come into the SEC with these kids and be able to win them over, especially as a California kid,” Kiffin said. “Matt has that swagger and that leadership component that kids follow, and you see the way they’ve taken to him on this team.”
Manning, easily one of the most revered players in Ole Miss history, has been equally impressed with the way Corral has adjusted.
“You go back through the years and Ole Miss hasn’t signed many California quarterbacks,” Manning said. “I admire the way Matt has come in and taken care of his business after going through some struggles and ups and downs, as everybody does. You can see how he’s grown under Lane. I just want him to stay healthy because I think he will have a great year.”
Some of Corral’s most important work, at least as it pertains to the future of Ole Miss football, might not even come on the field this season. He is doing his part to keep Ole Miss royalty at home.
Yet another Manning is one of the most coveted high school quarterback prospects in the country.
Arch Manning, Archie’s grandson, Cooper’s son and the nephew of former NFL signal-callers Peyton and Eli, is a junior at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans. He is on every program’s wish list in the country, and Ole Miss is fighting Alabama, Georgia and Texas to get him. Arch Manning is obviously no stranger to the Ole Miss campus. He visited this summer and recently hung out with Corral while in town with his parents. Archie Manning said the two also spent some time together at the Manning Passing Academy this summer.
And while it’s true that the Ole Miss football complex bears Archie and Olivia Manning’s names, Archie insists he is doing his best to stay out of what’s sure to be a fierce recruiting battle.
“I’m taking a deep seat and a faraway look. That’s where granddaddy belongs in this process,” Archie said with a hearty laugh.
Corral’s sales pitch has been more aggressive.
“You can’t beat this environment, especially if you’re a quarterback and all we do on offense, the tempo and all the pro-style stuff,” Corral said. “The thing I’ve told [Arch] is how much fun it is to play here, but also how much you grow as a player and as a person with the structure.”
Looking back, Corral joked he probably should have known that he and Kiffin would eventually wind up together. As a sixth-grader, Corral and a buddy of his, Colorado long-snapper James Townsend, attended “Camp Kiffin” the summer before Kiffin’s final season as USC’s head coach.
“I remember [now-LSU coach] Ed Orgeron being there, being on the USC practice field and everything,” Corral said. “So, I guess it wasn’t that wild to think that I might one day play for Coach Kiff.
“Just not at Ole Miss.”
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