This time last year, Matt Corral was a dazzling Ole Miss quarterback who could be turnover-prone on occasion.
Now he's just the dazzling part.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound redshirt junior for the No. 13 Rebels enters Saturday night's intriguing matchup against Tennessee inside a sold-out Neyland Stadium having yet to throw an interception this season in 146 passes. He is the lone Southeastern Conference starting quarterback yet to be intercepted after having the dubious distinction of leading the league in that category last year with 14.
"I think it's just year one to year two as a quarterback in a system," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Thursday in a news conference. "He's continuing to grow as a decision maker, and that's in part him and in part the guys who are around him, too. They continue to grow and evolve as an offensive unit, and he's just a great playmaker who does a good job of taking care of the football.
"We've got to apply pressure to him, and we've also got to bottle him up in the pocket. You let him get loose, and he'll hurt you with his feet, but he hurts you with his arm first."
One week after nearly leading the Rebels to an upset of eventual national champion Alabama last season, Corral was intercepted a staggering six times in a loss at Arkansas. It was not an unfamiliar scene for Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin.
In Kiffin's one season as Tennessee's coach in 2009, quarterback Jonathan Crompton was intercepted three times and sacked three times during a 19-15 loss to visiting UCLA in the second game. Crompton would later lead the Volunteers to resounding victories over Georgia and South Carolina and nearly knocked off an Alabama team on its way to Nick Saban's first of six national crowns with the Crimson Tide, with Crompton throwing just two interceptions in those three contests.
"Matt really has matured," Kiffin said. "I think having a spring with him has done a lot, and hopefully that continues. Over the course of the year, you have games that people learn from. You go back to Jonathan Crompton against UCLA, and that's like the flashback to Arkansas a year ago.
"Obviously we didn't have Jonathan for a second year, but the growth between year one and year two can be huge in those situations so those games don't hopefully happen again."
Corral will head to Knoxville having completed 101 of 146 passes (69.2%) for 1,497 yards with 12 touchdowns. His completion percentage and yards per game are down from a year ago, but staying away from interceptions has resulted in a higher overall efficiency rating this time around.
Tennessee is being presented a third opportunity this season against a quarterback who can be effective both throwing and running, having come up empty the first two times.
In the 41-34 home loss to Pittsburgh on Sept. 11, veteran Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 24 of 36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Pickett was able to escape from the pocket on several occasions before throwing, and he wound up with a 13-yard run and a 1-yard touchdown run.
The Vols struggled even more two weeks later against Florida's Emory Jones during the 38-14 setback in Gainesville. Jones completed 21 of 27 attempts for 209 yards and two scores while also rushing 15 times for 144 yards with a long of 49.
Corral has eight touchdown runs this season, with half of those coming in a 61-21 thrashing of Tulane on Sept. 18.
"You still have to rush him," Heupel said. "You just have to maintain rush integrity. We've given quarterbacks the opportunity to get out and extend and make plays.
"We can't do that on Saturday night."
Update on Evans
Tennessee junior running back Tiyon Evans has been one of the team's top surprises, ranking fifth in the SEC with 486 yards on 73 carries (6.66 per carry) and six touchdowns. He rushed 16 times for 119 yards and a score in last week's 45-20 thumping of South Carolina but had to leave the game midway through the third quarter due to an ankle injury.
"Early in the week, we didn't know what his availability would be," Heupel said. "As the week has gone on, he's been able to get more work. Ultimately, we make those decisions Friday."