Matt Corral

Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral warms up before Saturday's game at top-ranked Alabama.

OXFORD • The more he thinks about it, the more Jim Benkert has to laugh at the irony of the last name.

Matt Corral.

Why on earth would you want to corral someone like that?

Benkert was Corral’s high school coach for two seasons at Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village, California. Before the Ole Miss signal-caller became a Heisman Trophy contender and a likely early round draft pick in whatever NFL Draft he enters his name into, Corral was Benkert’s starting quarterback in 2015 and 2016, when he was a sophomore and junior at the Southern California powerhouse.

'It's funny how the universe works': Corral and Kiffin's connection kicked off a decade ago

Benkert still has a picture of him and Corral that sums up their relationship quite neatly — it’s the two standing next to each other on the sidelines, and Corral giving him his trademark, inquisitive smile.

It’s the makings of a faint smirk telling Benkert he needed to run a different play than was called. And, more times than not, Corral was right.

You just have to let Matt be Matt.

“It’s funny that he has a last name that corresponds with what I’m saying. He’s not going to be corralled,” Benkert said. “He’s his own thinker. He has his own drive.”

Who is the 'real' Matt Corral?

Corral is admittedly an emotional person. He is genuine and sincere, and he cares about his team and his teammates. A lot.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve,” Corral said.

Corral did not have the smoothest road to Ole Miss or at Ole Miss. There were people who thought they knew who Corral was when they didn’t know the first thing about him. His path has been well-documented.

Matt Corral's disastrous 2020 game at Arkansas is helping him today

When he left Oaks Christian for Long Beach Poly High heading into his senior year of high school, it was a “red flag.” When he decommitted from Southern Cal and later Florida, it was a knock on his character. When he got in an altercation with Mississippi State defenders in the 2018 Egg Bowl, it was just more of the same.

“He just lost the PR battle in a winless situation,” said Brandon Huffman, national recruiting editor for 247Sports and a Ventura native. “There was almost a manufactured dislike of him.”

But if you ask anyone around him, none of those things could be further from the truth. The real Matt Corral is the unfathomably busy young man who always finds time to reply to Benkert’s texts, even if he’s still in the locker room.

The truth about Corral is that he is going to do things his own way, even if no one else is on his side. It’s what makes him a dynamic personality and football player.

“That’s what I like. He’s going to be who he is, regardless of what anyone else says,” his mother, Liz, said. “A lot of people pretend they’re something they’re not.”

Don’t reign Corral in. You have to let the artist paint. Because more often than not, it’s going to be a masterpiece.

“Matt is unique. He is not going to conform to your little box that you’re going to put him in, and he is a unique young man. That being said, he has great values,” Benkert said. “Matt is going to stand up for what is right, even if he’s the only one standing.”

Corral battles perception problems

The first misconception about Matt Corral is that he is what he appears.

You might see a young man with a tattoo sleeve on his golden right arm and a California-cool look and demeanor. He has been called “a thug” at previous points in his life.

But that really isn’t who he is. He’s a country boy, Benkert said. He just isn’t your typical, clean-cut, All-American looking quarterback.

Corral, the youngest of three boys, prepped at Oaks Christian, a private Christian school that costs upwards of $35,000 per year to attend normally. It’s a good 45-minute drive or so from Ventura, the blue-collar community where his family actually resides.

As Liz said, the family lives “paycheck to paycheck,” which is often in stark contrast with the cars in the Oaks Christian parking lot. Liz said she filled out financial aid forms for Matt every year.

Oaks Christian has churned out Division I talent for the last 15 years or so. Among them was quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who played at Notre Dame after showing up to his signing day ceremony at the College Football Hall of Fame in a white Hummer. That being said, perceptions of players from Oaks Christian have not always been positive.

And Corral, who became the first freshman starter in school history, was among the victims despite making positive impressions on everyone with whom he came in contact.

“There was this whole perception that, based on that school he’s at and what school he’s committed to (USC), he can’t be that great of a kid,” Huffman said. “(But then you meet him and) how can you not like him?”

If you go to Oaks Christian, you’re thought of as “entitled.” That isn’t the Corral family, and certainly isn’t Matt, who spent much of his childhood toughening up against his two older brothers. Liz said Matt wanted to leave Oaks Christian after his freshman year but was convinced to tough it out despite not fitting in.

“These kids drive freaking Bentleys,” Liz said with a laugh. “They were really way out of our league.”

On-the-field questions never about talent

The quality of football with Corral, however, was never in question. He is among the top competitors Benkert has ever been around.

The arm talent has always been stellar — scouting circles used to say it was like Corral “had dynamite in his elbow,” Huffman said — and his stats at Oaks Christian were gaudy: 7,683 passing yards and 91 total touchdowns in three seasons.

But more important was his spirit.

If Oaks Christian was going to lose, it would happen with Corral’s tongue hanging out of his mouth, Benkert said. You can’t quantify that.

“I think the intangible is he refused to lose. When you refuse to lose and you have that type of ability, you’re going to be dynamic,” Benkert said. “And I think that’s what he is. He’s dynamic.”

There was a perception battle on the field for Corral, too. He was a gunslinger, scouts thought. Could he be reined in? Or was he destined to play “hero ball?” The never-say-die attitude Benkert loved was perceived by outsiders as selfishness.

Adding to the discussion was the fact Oaks Christian won CIF, California’s version of a state championship, the year after Corral departed.

“The reputation was that he doesn’t take the coaching because he’s a gunslinger,” Huffman said. “And gunslingers aren’t the safe, game-manager types.”

'Kid stuff' in high school threatened Corral's future

Things reached a tipping point at Oaks Christian when, at a basketball game, Corral got in what Benkert refers to as a “confrontation” with someone at the game. There were no punches thrown, Benkert said, but that didn’t stop rumors of a fight from spinning out of control. What didn’t help was that Corral was a star, and it was a public spectacle.

“No one got punched, no one threw a punch, it was a pushing situation that was blown out of proportion,” Benkert said. “But when you have a big name, it becomes maybe national news.

“It was kid stuff.”

TMZ wrote a story about an alleged fight, and the Los Angeles Daily News reported Corral’s departure “was related to a disciplinary matter.” Corral initially tweeted about the incident, saying it was not an expulsion and was his choice to leave, which it was. He later deleted the tweet.

Oaks Christian athletics did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Corral didn’t feel like he was going to be supported through the situation by Oaks Christian, Benkert and Liz said, and the repercussions could have been dire to his college football career. And he knew that wasn’t right.

“You can’t fight city hall,” Benkert said. "(Sometimes) maybe the best thing is to move on.”

There was sort of an unspoken rule that no one asked Corral about what happened at Oaks Christian, Huffman said. Huffman remembers seeing Corral at an event and asking Pierce if he could talk to him. The only rule was that the past couldn’t be brought up. Pierce declined to be interviewed for this story.

Everything that could be used against Corral was, Huffman said — even that tattoo sleeve.

As a parent, it was extremely difficult to see a child be slandered for things people didn’t fully understand.

“That’s the hardest part,” Liz said. “The other hard part is holding your tongue.”

Matt Corral's 'awakening' at Ole Miss

You might remember seeing Corral get in the face of a Mississippi State defender during the 2018 Egg Bowl. You also might remember seeing him essentially try to take on five Bulldogs at once shortly thereafter. Liz can’t help but laugh when she thinks about it.

Everybody penalized, four ejected in Egg Bowl fight

"Here we go again," comes to mind.

Corral was taught by his parents to never throw the first punch, particularly when everyone is watching your every move. And Corral didn’t make the first move in this case — Mississippi State's Johnathan Abram and Ole Miss wide receiver A.J. Brown get the honors for that — but Corral rushed in after punches were exchanged and did not back down. That didn’t go over well in all circles.

That’s not Corral being “a punk” or looking for a fight. That’s Corral standing up for people he cares about, friends and family say. But, as was the case at Oaks Christian, everyone was watching.

“If you’re his buddy, he will have your back,” Liz said. “He is not afraid to stand up for who is he is and what he believes in.”

Corral has had his bumps in the road in Oxford as well. In addition to the Egg Bowl incident, he was injured and later benched for in-state hero John Rhys Plumlee in 2019.

Corral vividly remembers drive that came up short

As has always been the case, Corral largely kept things to himself. And, if anything, he was supportive of Plumlee.

“Matt wanted him to be successful,” Benkert said.

There were moments Liz admits to worrying about her youngest son. Parents always worry about their children, she said, but one who had been on a several-year roller coaster in the public eye was different.

Then she remembered Matt having “an awakening.”

It was sometime after the 2019 season and before 2020, following the dismissal of Matt Luke and the hiring of Lane Kiffin. She remembers coming to Oxford and seeing a different Matt, one who seemed to understand the gravity of the responsibilities thrust upon his shoulders.

It’s not like he ever ran from being a leader of men, but now he really understood what it meant.

“It was everything. The way he held himself on the field, off the field. He wanted to be that leader, and he had to do what leaders do,” Liz said. “I think he just wanted to bring this team together.”

Corral has admitted as much — that his growth as a team leader has been a conscious effort, even if everything that comes with it hasn’t been easy.

“There’s some things that you don’t want to do and you’re going to have to do them because that’s the role you’re in, that’s the type of person you want to be,” Corral said.

He is at the Manning Center at 5:30 a.m. sharp, Kiffin said. He is leading by example more than ever.

“He’s been more vocal,” junior wide receiver Jonathan Mingo said. “He’s been on us when we’re slacking.”

Corral's character matters most to family, friends

The truth about Corral is that he is intense, and he is emotional. He stands up for what he believes in, even if it’s to his detriment. And those aren’t always popular ways to live your life.

But it’s what makes him stand out in a crowd.

Liz is convinced not everyone would have escaped as relatively unscathed as her youngest son did, but she said he’s a fighter.

“When you’re so young and you’re still learning and trying to live life and you’re making mistakes and you’re trying to move on, it was probably just an eye-opener. … (But) it happened for a reason,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot (of people who would have made it). I honestly don’t. It’s that one certain person. You have to have it in you.”

If you want to get the best picture of who Corral is, look no further than this tale from Benkert.

Benkert is no longer the head coach at Oaks Christian; he is now the leading man at Simi Valley High, which is about 15 miles from Westlake Village. In case you haven’t heard, Corral has been quite busy in recent months following his stellar 2020 campaign. He has become one of college football’s brightest stars.

When Corral was home training a few months ago, Benkert informed Corral he had a talented freshman quarterback, not so different from the wide-eyed kid Corral was just a few years ago. In the middle of his own training, Corral drove 30 minutes from Ventura to Simi Valley just to shake hands and chat with the young man and his parents. He then apologized to Benkert for being a bit late; he was hungry and had to get a bit of grub.

“It made the parents’ day,” Benkert said. “That is Matt.”

Because as much as he accomplishes on the field — and there is plenty more great football ahead of Corral— the thing his mother is proudest of isn’t that he’s an All-American candidate.

It’s that he never lost who he was, even when people kept trying to fit him neatly inside the lines. And he’s blossomed by staying true to himself.

“As a parent I always worry about all my kids regardless. And I always kind of worried more so (about Matt) because I didn’t know where he was (mentally). Now I’m like, ‘I’m good. He’s good,’” Liz said. “There comes a time when you can rest a little. I can sleep at night.”

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