It has become almost customary this time of the year: Top pro football prospects announce they will forgo their college football team’s bowl game to protect their health and prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. It’s simply a business decision, they say.

Rick Cleveland

Matt Corral, who very well could be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 draft, made it clear Tuesday night that won’t happen in his case. After accepting the C Spire Conerly Trophy as Mississippi’s most outstanding college football player of 2021, Corral was asked whether he has considered skipping Ole Miss’ New Years Six bowl game.

“It’s a legitimate question, and I can understand why some people do it,” Corral said. “But that’s just not me. That’s not who I am. I am going to play. We’ve been through too much and come too far as a team for me not to play. I owe it to my teammates and my coaches and, really, myself. There’s no way I wouldn’t play.”

Despite battling injuries, Corral, a junior, led the Rebels to a 10-2 season, throwing for 20 touchdowns and running for 11 more on the way to becoming a legit candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He won the Conerly Trophy over other finalists Will Rogers of Mississippi State and Shedeur Sanders of Jackson State, both with eye-popping stats of their own. Corral received a standing ovation from the crowd in the packed ballroom at Country Club of Jackson.

Several draft experts have listed Corral as the top quarterback available in this class. Three pro football scouts contacted by this columnist Tuesday all said Corral is a certain first rounder and could be the first quarterback taken.

Comments included:

  • “No question about his arm strength and his ability to make all the throws.”
  • “We love his toughness, his grit. He competes at a high level at all times.”
  • “Makes all the throws you need to make at the next level and can also make plays with his legs.”
  • “If there’s a concern, you’d love for him to be a little taller (Corral is a shade over 6 feet) and you’d love for him to have a little bit bigger frame. You just worry about his durability, especially when you play the way he does.”

Former Ole Miss and New Orleans Saints great Deuce McAllister, now an analyst for New Orleans Saints radio and SEC Network TV, believes Corral has played his way into the first round “and into the conversation of being the first quarterback taken.”

Conerly Trophy winner Matt Corral (holding trophy) is flanked on his left by C Spire CEO Hu Meena and Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders and on his right by Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers. Sanders and Rogers were the other two finalists.

Archie Manning, who had Corral as an instructor at the Manning Passing Academy last summer, said the California native has earned a hallowed spot in Rebel football history. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks we have ever had at Ole Miss,” Manning said. “I look forward to watching him on Sundays.”

Each scout, including one former NFL general manager, stressed Corral’s competitive drive as perhaps his greatest asset.

So did Ole Miss strength and conditioning coach Wilson Love, who represented Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin at Tuesday night’s Conerly banquet at the Country Club of Jackson. 

“Matt’s the first one to workouts and the last one to leave,” Love said. “He has come a long way since he got to Ole Miss both as a person and as a leader. Everybody in our locker room believes in him and he’s earned that respect.”

There was a time, earlier in Corral’s career, when his off-the-field conduct and reputation as a party guy might have been red flags to NFL scouts. That isn’t the case now.

“Nobody on our team works harder,” Love said. “Like I say, he’s come a long, long way. He loves his team. He’s the most selfless guy on our team.”

Corral smiled when was asked about his off-field reputation from earlier days.

“I just decided I had to grow up,” he said, looking the questioner in the eyes. “It was time. I just realized that if I wanted to achieve what I want to achieve in this game, I had to grow up. God has put me in this place and given me this opportunity. He has a plan for me. I just realized that I had to grow up. I really do think I’ve come a long way.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.