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Why I'll root for Matt Corral after his NFL Draft tumble to Carolina Panthers | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

I think I found a new favorite NFL quarterback.

He’ll wear Carolina blue, after the Panthers drafted Ole Miss’ Matt Corral late in the third round on Friday.

I’m no NFL Draft guru, but like many folks who deem themselves draft experts, I had expected Corral would be a late first-round pick after his splendid junior season.

Corral's grit and leadership impressed me throughout the 2021 season, along with his dual-threat abilities. Teammates rallied around him. He was simply fun to watch. 

Corral, though, remained undrafted until the 94th overall pick. Quarterbacks Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ritter and Malik Willis were selected ahead of him.

So, why the hesitation?

Corral does not boast all the physical calling cards of some past early first-round picks.

Further, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Corral’s draft stock was affected by past issues, “including alcohol … and unreliable behavior." Rapoport also referenced Corral going public about feeling depressed in 2019, for which Corral said he sought therapy and self improvement.

[ MORE ON MATT CORRAL:What experts think of Carolina Panthers' selection of Ole Miss QB ]

Corral had areas of his life to address, and perhaps his improvement journey remains in progress. That makes him relatable.

Many of us experience depression at some time or another, and many of us have overindulged in alcohol, especially in college, where alcohol is intrinsic to the experience. Just take a stroll through The Grove before an Ole Miss football game and count the number of red Solo cups.

That’s not to make light of depression or alcohol – and, in fact, alcohol can cause depression, and depression can increase the chance of alcohol abuse – but rather it’s to say I hear of no warning bell so loud as to make me doubt Corral's NFL future.

Panthers coach Matt Rhule gets it.

“Everyone in their life goes through things,” said Rhule, a former college coach at Temple and Baylor, “and we do a really good job of trying to delineate between people who have an issue or problem that can’t be overcome, with people who are going through something in their lives. I don’t know about you, but when I was 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, I certainly went through things.

“I really respect people who have been through things and are powerful enough, and open enough, to talk about them, and Matt is definitely one of those guys.’’

Corral has endured a microscope many of us will never know. While a highly-sought prospect in high school, he was the subject of a TMZ report that stated his transfer between California high schools followed an altercation with Wayne Gretzky’s son.

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SEC quarterbacks spend their careers in the fishbowl, and Corral is hardly the first to encounter growing pains.

He told Yahoo Sports earlier this year he felt depressed and a lack of purpose as a redshirt freshman. He described how a combination of therapy and an enhanced dedication to the film room helped him grow, and he later began to open up during once-a-week players meetings designed to foster trust within the team.

“What really separates me is my ability to lead a team,” Corral told reporters at the NFL scouting combine. “I understand what it means to be vulnerable around people who don’t necessarily want to be vulnerable. I was (once) one of those guys who didn’t want to talk about emotions. 

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“There were a lot of players on my team who weren’t necessarily comfortable talking about their issues. Them seeing me be vulnerable made them be more comfortable.

“Taking care of the life stuff, when that’s taken care of, I feel like football takes care of itself. That’s what you saw in ’21. We weren’t the best team. We weren’t the most talented team. But we played the best together, and I think that was a big part of it.”

Here’s what I know about Corral.

He’s a speed-toward-collision competitor who plays tougher than his size – Ole Miss listed him at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds – suggests possible. His playing style evoked memories of Johnny Manziel, and teammates responded to his leadership like he was Tim Tebow.

When injuries hampered the Ole Miss receiving corps, more got placed on Corral’s shoulders. He delivered one of the most impressive performances of the season in a 31-26 victory over Tennessee, when he surrendered his body for yardage en route to 185 rushing yards on 30 carries, alongside 231 yards passing.

Ole Miss' 10 victories last season tied a program record. Lane Kiffin, deservedly, receives praise for the Rebels’ rise in his second season as coach, but Ole Miss’ success in 2021 had much to do with its quarterback.

“He's had a lot to do with changing the mindset of the people around here,” Kiffin said in November.

In a time when many NFL-bound college players choose to sit out bowl games rather than risk injury, Corral embraced playing in the Sugar Bowl. 

“I’m going to give these guys everything I’ve got ‘til it’s over,” Corral said before the game.

For Corral, it was over in the first quarter after a sprained ankle relegated him to the sideline. He spent the rest of the game motoring around on crutches while still wearing turf-stained uniform pants. A parade of teammates shook Corral's hand or hugged their injured quarterback, and Corral consulted with his replacement, Luke Altmyer, after possessions.

“You can be a 50-year-old coach, and you should listen to this guy," Kiffin said of Corral's leadership.

For all of Corral's qualities, he isn't easy to put in a box, and that might have made him an imperfect pro prospect. The NFL loves quarterbacks with prototype attributes. If Corral had those in spades, I don’t believe he would have fallen to the 94th pick.

Corral possesses a good arm, but it’s not John Elway’s arm.

Corral is a determined runner, but he’s not the same caliber of open-field threat as Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray.

Corral is big enough to be a pro quarterback, but he doesn’t have Trevor Lawrence’s size.

Corral became more committed to preparation later in his Ole Miss career, but he’s not a lifelong details junkie like Peyton Manning.

Corral showed a quick release and admirable accuracy. He smoothly operated Ole Miss’ up-tempo offense that relies on run-pass option plays, but it’s fair to question how he’ll adapt to more of a pro-style offense.

Corral enters a good situation in Carolina. He’s not expected to be the Day 1 starter – the Panthers seem prepared to hand Sam Darnold the reins – but he’s also not sitting behind a star who has played so well it’s hard to envision anyone unseating him.

Corral heads to the NFL armed with a mile of moxie, a list of doubters, and a willingness to grow.

Guys like that are easy to root for.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.