August 18 has become embossed in the mind of Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, now as important as his birthday, his parents’ anniversary or any almost other single day on the calendar.
It’s the day more than two years ago when Corral said everything changed for him and helped set him on a course that has made him a top 2022 NFL draft prospect.
It was not a banner day in practice, a position battle won on the field, or even a fun day out with his buddies.
It was the day Corral said he tackled depression head on. He was done burying his feelings and trying to escape them.
“I remember, it was August 18,” Corral told Yahoo Sports. “I was in a depression my sophomore year of college. And I just didn’t understand why.
“I was still training, and it just felt like I was just going through the motions. It just felt like I was being stagnant. There was no purpose as to what I was doing.”
Corral’s journey up to that point was complicated. Some observers felt like he was running away from his Southern California roots, having first committed to USC, then Florida, before ending up at Ole Miss.
Corral admits that parts of his high school experience were regrettable — an experience that branded him, fairly or not, as immature and even something of a hothead when he landed in Oxford, Miss.
Even a trip home couldn’t bring out joy in the former 4-star Rivals recruit who had yet to find success in college football. But recognizing that things were not right in his own head allowed everything to change for Corral.
“I just remember crying on the couch before my flight going home and just wondering why the heck I’m feeling like this,” Corral said. “And I had that mindset of not taking no as an answer. That’s when my whole work ethic changed.”
Corral split time at QB with John Rhys Plumlee, whom Corral considers a good friend, in 2019. He showed flashes of talent, but nothing close to the level he’d touch the following two seasons.
Those seasons coincided with the arrival of Lane Kiffin as head coach and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who is now at Oklahoma. Corral was finally facing his depression, encouraged by his parents to attend therapy, and it allowed him to come out of his shell as a player.
“I was just in the middle of trying to change my mindset to see how far I could take it,” Corral said of Kiffin and Lebby’s arrival in December 2019. “And it changed me as a person completely. .. I knew that I wasn’t getting out (of his experience) what I wanted, and I knew that it was because of me, no one else could change that (and) that no one else can change the outcome but me.”
Escaping his southern California past
The story is well-told by now. But as embarrassing as it was for Corral at the time, he’s the one who brings it up. It’s all part of his self-discovery, he said.
Corral attended Oaks Christian School, in tony Westlake Village, Calif., a town where the average income is pushing 150 grand. It was a mismatch for Corral, who considers himself more of a middle-class kid. To some of his classmates, Corral might have been seen as from the other side of the tracks.
That conflict came to a head in February 2017, when Corral got into it with — of all people — Wayne Gretzky’s son, Tristan, at an Oaks Christian basketball game. That led to TMZ reporting on the incident, which did no favors for the then-18-year-old Corral’s reputation.
Details of the incident vary depending on the source. Was it a fight? A disagreement? Boys being boys?
Whatever happened, Corral wasn’t the one getting the benefit of the doubt. He left the school and enrolled at Long Beach Poly, more than an hour away — something of a logistical nightmare. But any hassle was better than staying at what Corral has called a “rich kid school” in the past, even tweeting that Christian Oaks was “biased towards money” before deleting it.
USC cooled on its recruitment, even as Corral starred at his new high school and clearly was more comfortable. Saddled with some newfound baggage, he’d switch college destinations two more times before landing at Ole Miss, which might as well have been the other side of the planet away from where he grew up.
Whether by distance or maturity, Corral was able to eventually find his footing at Ole Miss. He’s at peace with his past missteps and his own growth to this point, to the point where Corral says he’s 100 percent confident in his own abilities to lead an NFL franchise as a potential first-round draft pick, even if grappling with the specter of depression remains a constant battle.
“Absolutely. You know, I’m not going to say that life’s easy every single day. It has its trials and tribulations,” he said. “But having your vices, understanding yourself, (knowing) where you’re at mentally and how to prevent certain emotions and just being able to control them (has helped).
“Keep it under control, and keeping the main thing the main thing is keeping God first and understanding that it’s not about you.”
How Matt Corral learned to lead, starting with leading himself
By the time that Corral announced he’d be playing for the Rebels in the Sugar Bowl last year, he’d amassed an impressive two seasons, going from six touchdown passes in 2019 to 29 in 2020 and 20 in 2021. Corral also had thrown for 6,680 yards, completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and run for 15 scores.
Even though Corral always had the talent to play at a high level in the SEC, those big numbers likely don’t happen without the work-ethic adjustment and the commitment to bettering himself.
That started with 5 a.m. personal film sessions — the ones prior to team film sessions at 7. That was followed by classes, practice, post-practice meetings, going through the offensive scripts and repeating it all the next day.
Instead of being glued to a couch, Corral was committed to the new version of himself.
“It just became a habit of how far I can take this and how much can I handle?” he said. “… I changed my mindset to see how far I could take it, and it changed me as a person completely.”
After starting to conquer his own demons, Corral said, earning the trust of his coaches and teammates was the next major hurdle. Being a leader, a true leader, wasn’t easy, Corral would realize. Even as things got better with managing his depression, fears and doubts plagued him.
“I was never I was never a vocal leader,” he said. “… You can see me work, and you could see me do the right things, but I was never one to call people out. I just wasn’t very vocal.”
Those fears were stripped down quite a bit during intense bonding sessions with his Ole Miss teammates, starting in earnest in 2020.
The players had a ritual known as “Get Real Wednesday” where players would air out grievances, mostly non-football stuff, and even discuss real-world issues. The only non-player allowed in the room was Wilson Love, the strength coach. Walls came down and the players got real.
“It was whatever we needed to talk about,” Corral said.
As the quarterback, Corral was expected to speak first. It was, like his first few years playing at Ole Miss, a trial by fire and an adjustment period.
“It was uncomfortable, but you know what they say: You never grow in your comfort zone,” Corral said.
Following George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, several Ole Miss players got together to discuss the incident — and that’s where Corral first felt the pressure of talking first. After he was finished talking about his own difficult experiences and how all he wanted to do was fight for his teammates, no matter their background, skin color or beliefs, Corral had won over the room.
And he did just that, on and off the field. Corral’s toughness was never in question after he ran the ball 30 times at Tennessee despite having his ankle rolled up on, leading a tough road victory.
Kiffin doubted that his quarterback could play the following week against LSU. Corral not only played, but he completed 18 of 23 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, also running for a score and catching a 19-yard pass in the Rebels’ gutsy win at home.
Although Corral’s per-game passing production in 2021 was a bit down from his breakout season in 2020, his reliability factor had actually increased.
Following a 14-interception season in 2020 — including five- and six-pick games against LSU and Arkansas — Corral threw only five interceptions in 2021. He credits film study and understanding how to attack the drop-eight defenses that had unglued him in those games. Corral wouldn’t throw more than one pick in any game this past season.
On his Sugar Bowl injury: ‘No regrets’ in choosing to play
When Corral explained to his teammates that he would not be opting out of his final college game after declaring for the 2022 NFL draft, and that he would be playing alongside him in the Sugar Bowl against Baylor, Corral had achieved total buy-in from them.
They’d been there for him when few others were, after all, so Corral was absolutely going to be there for them.
“That is really the reason why I couldn’t just (say), ‘No, I’m not going to play in this game.’ You know, it’s selfish,” Corral said. “I just felt like it was a selfish thing to do because I wasn’t in this position by myself. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
But Corral would be thrown another curveball in that game. Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, Corral was sacked by Baylor defensive tackle Cole Maxwell and eventually was carted off the field. He’d return to the sideline on crutches.
He’d suffered a sprained ankle, and thankfully, X-rays were negative. But Ole Miss lost, 21-7, and Corral’s college career was over. Still, he said he wouldn’t have gone back and done things differently.
“Absolutely not, I don’t have any regrets,” Corral said. “I put my heart and soul into this team.”
Coming back onto the field with the game still in progress, Corral felt helpless to do anything but encourage his teammates and his replacement, true freshman QB Luke Altmyer, who had all of nine pass attempts coming into the game and who’d thrown a 96-yard pick-six on his third throw that night.
“Just looking into my coaches’ eyes as I am crutching out there, and then my teammates all looking at me when I’m just walking back out there, and just seeing the look in their faces and looking in their eyes, it was a different feeling that I haven’t felt before,” Corral said. “And it hurt. It hurt deep, but just you know, and I had no time to just complain about it.”
It hurt Kiffin, too. Asked after the game, Kiffin spoke of how Corral had inspired him and the rest of the team earlier that day.
“He’s been unbelievable, and (the) things that you don’t see besides the playing, just how he is,” Kiffin said. “I had a cool moment this morning (at) the team meeting, just listening to him talk. And I told our own coaches and players, ‘You can be a freshman and you’re supposed to listen to the leaders, (and) you can be a 50-year-old coach, and you should listen to this guy.’”
Corral’s goal: Convincing NFL teams he can be trusted
After Corral’s Sugar Bowl injury, Kiffin gave his pupil a strong endorsement for the next level.
“He’s going to make a great NFL player and do great for a franchise,” Kiffin said.
Scouts appreciate Corral’s live arm, scrambling prowess and improvements as a caretaker. Considering the ankle is healed, Corral can’t wait to showcase his skills for NFL teams.
But he also knows his past will be fair game, especially with the NFL combine and the all-important interview process just around the corner. He’s ready for the questions — not just because he’s been prepped for them, but also because he thinks his personal journey has helped him take on challenges and face the uncomfortable head on.
Any NFL team considering using a high draft pick on Corral will have to feel secure in the idea that he’s come a long way and that a franchise quarterback must not only be the face of a franchise but also its hardest worker.
“I used to be that type of person (who complained), ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that, I’ve got to be working on this,’ rather than seeing how far I’ve come,” he said. “And sometimes in life you’ve got to realize how far (you’ve come) from where you started. You can only put so much negative in your head.”
In Corral’s mind, there’s no more need to bury the past or run from it. Heading it straight on has helped get him on the doorstep of his dream to make it in the NFL. And he’s in a much better place now than he was prior to that fateful August 18.
“So I’m more happy now,” he said, “and I’m very grateful that certain situations happened even though I felt as if I wasn’t ready (to deal with them at the time). But it got me to where I am today.”