Saturday's Liberty-Mississippi game was one of the most anticipated college football matchups of the year, with two of the top quarterback prospects in the nation facing off. As you'd expect, NFL scouts flocked to Oxford, Miss., for the showdown between the Rebels' Matt Corral and the Flames' Malik Willis. Representatives from 16 teams were in attendance, including Broncos general manager George Paton and Washington Football Team GM Martin Mayhew, per my NFL Media colleague Chase Goodbread.
Corral came out on top in a 27-14 Ole Miss win, completing 20 of 27 passes for 324 yards and a touchdown despite clearly being hobbled by pain in his lower body. Willis went 16 of 25 for 173 yards, no TDs and three interceptions. He rushed 27 times for 71 yards and a TD and was sacked nine times (including seven in the first half).
While these two quarterbacks are considered among the top talents at their position, both will have the option of returning to school if they so choose. Willis, a redshirt senior, told The Athletic in a story published this week that he has not yet made a decision about his future. Corral is a redshirt junior and also faces a decision after the season on whether to turn pro or return to Ole Miss.
Here are five takeaways from their performances on Saturday:
1) Willis showed an ability to handle adversity in stride. It was a disappointing first half, to say the least, for Willis, who took seven sacks and threw two interceptions over the first two quarters. I was extremely interested to see how he would adjust and respond coming after halftime. The results were very positive, as the second half lived completely independent of the first. Liberty did a better job of using the run to help keep Ole Miss pass rushers from pinning their ears back and Willis ended up being a big part of that run game. Beyond that, he threw the ball with better timing and confidence and seemed to get beyond the issues of the first half.
2) Scheme fit will be extremely important for Corral and Willis at the next level. Both quarterbacks are mobile, can hurt teams with their legs and have plenty of arm talent. Despite those similarities, they are going to need different things to succeed in the NFL.
Corral plays with excellent ball-handling and has a more efficient release that allows him to get the ball out quickly. He could play in any passing scheme, but an offense that emphasizes the quick game, RPOs and a timing-based passing attack seem to make the most sense for him. Willis, on the other hand, has a slower setup and operation time as a passer. Some of the timing-based elements of Liberty's passing attack just didn't seem to fit him on Saturday. While he certainly can refine his skills in that area, a pro-style passing scheme with plenty of bootleg play-action built into it would really blend with his strengths as a quarterback.
3) Competitiveness and toughness will not be a concern for either quarterback in the NFL. As someone who is doing a daily radio show and watching hours of prospect tape despite suffering a grade two ankle sprain during an unfortunate round of disc golf, I know a thing or two about toughness. In all seriousness, though, Willis, who has 10 rushing TDs this season, is a big-bodied runner (6-foot-1, 225 pounds, per school measurements) who knows how to use that to his advantage. He carried the ball a game-high 27 times on Saturday. The Flames called running plays for him and also asked him to handle zone-read runs and neither of these take into account the nine times he was sacked. Ole Miss' defense dropped heavy lumber on him quite a few times and he never blinked.
Corral also has 10 rushing touchdowns this season, is plenty involved in the Ole Miss running game when it is needed and doesn't shy away from contact when he's doing it. On Saturday, Corral was often seen hobbling around the field but never left the game and continued to deliver passing with good accuracy and zip despite not being able to fully transfer weight to his lead foot when delivering the football.
4) Willis struggled to find his rhythm as a passer and throw with better anticipation. The arguments about what the most critical of the critical traits are for quarterbacks rage on from year to year. Accuracy and poise are on my list, but functional mobility has become a must in today's game. That said, quarterback coaches often spotlight anticipatory passing as one of the biggest concerns for incoming quarterbacks. Willis' operation time is just average, but the arm strength is a big plus. However, developing a better feel for throwing on time against man coverage and into windows against zone could be the difference between becoming an average or very good NFL starter.
5) Corral and Willis bring to mind some interesting comparisons. Year after year, readers take me to task for my player comparisons in prospect profiles, but it can still be fun to identify who a prospect reminds you of from the current game or from years past. I've spoken to personnel executives from two different NFL teams that have compared Willis to Steve McNair due to his size, toughness, mobility and arm talent. I can absolutely see that comparison, although I do believe that Willis has more upside as a pure thrower of the football. Most of my comparisons start with physical and athletic similarities. With Corral, I see a player with similar setup and release quickness to Zach Wilson when he was coming out of BYU last season. Corral's gregarious on-field demeanor, talent for feathering in the deep ball and ability to command his offense is reminiscent of Baker Mayfield during his Oklahoma career.