Matt Corral lost the Ole Miss quarterback job as a redshirt freshman and needed all of preseason practice to reclaim it in 2020. Once he did, he didn't let go. A poor fit in the run-based offense of former Ole Miss offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez in 2019, Corral thrived in the first season of the new regime under Lane Kiffin and his OC Jeff Lebby.
"I think I need another year to grow in all aspects but really mentally," said Corral in December.
Corral averaged 333.7 passing yards per game and threw 29 touchdowns. He rushed for 506 yards and four touchdowns. Corral's numbers and attitude have him being mentioned in the Heisman race. Ole Miss is being mentioned in preseason Top 25 polls as Kiffin's restoration project shifts gears.
Fans will see new playmakers emerge around Corral, as the Rebels transition away from wide receiver Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah.
Defensively, the Rebels were a hot mess, but a mix of transfers, returning linebackers and recruiting fuel hope for improvement.
Previewing Ole Miss' Offense for 2021
All-SEC running back Jerrion Ealy is back after rushing for 745 yards and nine touchdowns. A skilled receiver who can change directions quickly, Ealy expects to fully recover from offseason shoulder surgery.
Sophomore Henry Parrish Jr. climbed the depth chart during the season as he passed bruising junior running back Jarod "Snoop" Conner. He's lighter than Conner but physical as well as fast.
Moore had 86 catches last year, which were 59 more than the next Ole Miss player. It's unlikely that proportion will be repeated this season. Wideouts Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders will get early opportunities, and so will former coveted four-star recruit Jonathan Mingo in the slot.
John Rhys Plumlee could see action at slot as well. Plumlee endeared himself to Ole Miss fans when he led the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2019 after taking the quarterback job when Corral left with an injury against Cal with five minutes left in the fourth game of the season. In 2020, Plumlee played slot and had five catches for 73 yards against Indiana in the bowl game. He and Kiffin will hash out his future this summer. Tight end will be handled by committee.
The Rebels return four starters on the offensive line, led by junior Nick Broeker at left tackle. This could be his final college season.
Previewing Ole Miss' Defense for 2021
Returning a number of players from a unit that ranked No. 126 in total defense and No. 117 in scoring defense might not be cause for celebration. However, there are reasons to expect improvement on the line, and that should allow veteran linebackers Lakia Henry, Sam Williams and MoMo Sanogo to make more plays. Williams led the team with eight tackles for a loss and four sacks last season.
Physicality on the interior was an issue last year and is something Kiffin hopes freshman Tywone Malone and junior college transfers Isaiah Iton and Jamond Gordon will help address. Malone (6'4", 305) is ranked the No. 62 player overall and the No. 6 defensive tackle by 247Sports.
In all, the Rebels had 14 signees on the defensive side. Most of those were in the secondary, where there's a good core to build around.
Junior free safety A.J. Finley had three interceptions and broke up seven passes. Senior cornerback Keidron Smith broke up six passes. The Rebels also will have Georgia transfer Star safety Otis Reese for a full season instead of just three games. It was November before Reese gained clearance from the NCAA, and he finished with 24 tackles, an interception and a pass breakup. Extrapolate those numbers across a full 12-game season, and you've got All-SEC production.
Previewing Ole Miss' Specialists for 2021
Under the best of circumstances, Kiffin doesn't really like to kick field goals. A lack of consistency in that department no doubt played into some of his decisions last year. Kicker Luke Logan attempted only 10 field goals, hitting six. The hope for improvement rests with freshman Caden Costa, who is rated the No. 7 recruit at his position.
Punter Mac Brown took advantage of the NCAA's offer of an extra season of eligibility after averaging 46.6 yards with 11 kicks of 50-plus yards and eight downed inside the 20.
Ealy was an important part of the return game last year, averaging 28.9 yards on kickoff returns, with a 100-yard touchdown at LSU.
The Rebels have talented playmakers set to emerge at receiver. Provided his rehab from shoulder surgery continues as expected, Ealy will make a big impact again. As with most teams, quarterback play will decide a lot of things. For Corral, improvement in the mental aspect means resisting the urge to force plays like he did against Arkansas and LSU, the two games in which he threw 11 of his 14 interceptions.
Kiffin anticipates development from Corral and strides from a defense that needs only to be middling. If he gets those things, Ole Miss has a great chance to finish the season in the Top 25 and find its way to a warm-weather bowl game for the second year in a row.
National Ranking: 27
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions