By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – There are nine full-time assistant coaches at Ole Miss, and rarely do they have time for idle chit-chat during the season.
They made time for Charles Sawyer, however.
They wanted to hear what he had to say. More importantly, they knew he had to say it.
One of the most experienced players on the Ole Miss defense – and over the course of his career one of the most productive – Sawyer had become a drifter watching his last days of college football slip away while younger talent honed in on a position that once belonged to him.
In August the poor health of Sawyer, coming off shoulder and knee surgeries, provided drama with Vanderbilt looming ahead in the opener. How would the Rebels defend All-SEC receiver Jordan Matthews?
The answer was, not very well. But Ole Miss survived and began to settle down in the secondary without Sawyer, who played sparingly and ineffectively against Vanderbilt.
He was held out of the Southeast Missouri game to regain his health, and then came the decision that led to Sawyer’s trip from office to office in the Rebels’ football building.
In the hours after a 31-13 win over Southeast Missouri on Sept. 7, Sawyer was arrested for DWI. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze suspended him for the Texas game.
Following the arrest Freeze described a player who had been viewed as a team leader who was broken and disappointed as he explained to his head coach what he’d done.
“As soon as it happened I called and just told him. I wanted to be the first one to tell him. I didn’t want anybody else to tell him. I thought that was the more adult way of doing it,” Sawyer said.
Repentance didn’t stop there. It extended to the staff and his teammates.
‘Trust in me’
“He came through and sat down and went to each coach and apologized,” said cornerbacks coach Jason Jones, Sawyer’s position coach. “He also apologized to his teammates and said, ‘I let you down and made a bad decision. I just want to let you know that’s not the type of person that I am.’ He said, ‘It won’t happen again, and you all can trust in me.’”
Sawyer’s subsequent actions have supported his words, his coaches say, but that hasn’t regained his status as a starter. Lindy’s preseason magazine rated him the No. 12 cornerback in the nation going into this season. In 29 career starts over three seasons – some at safety – Sawyer had 26 passes defended.
None of that mattered when he was suspended. The Rebels needed immediate help at Texas, and they found it in Mike Hilton, who moved over from Huskie to make his first start against Southeast Missouri.
Hilton latched onto the position.
“I wasn’t surprised. In the secondary we have great players all around. Mike Hilton, he went in. There was no hiccup. He went in and did his work, did what he was supposed to do,” said Sawyer, who assisted his own demise by tutoring Hilton. “I was telling him, ‘Do this, do that, do this’ and congratulated him on everything he did.”
Now Hilton’s hamstring injury – the sophomore is questionable for Saturday’s game against Idaho – has opened the door for Sawyer.
Sawyer was an important element in the coverage against Texas A&M’s Mike Evans two weeks ago and had one of the Rebels’ three interceptions against LSU’s Zach Mettenberger last week.
Exactly what Sawyer’s recent surge means for his final five regular season games remains to be seen, but he’s no longer drifting.
“His attitude has been phenomenal,” Freeze said. “He’s been frustrated that things didn’t happen maybe as fast as he hoped they would, but he continues to work to gain a spot. He had a solid game the other night at a critical time for us. We needed him.”