By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss defensive back Charles Sawyer is back at home. The question is whether the house is on fire.
“I came here to play corner,” said Sawyer, a fourth-year junior.
ESPN rated Sawyer as the No. 38 cornerback in the country coming out of high school in Miami. Corner is where he began his college career, but he spent most of 2011 at safety, a position he continued to hold when Hugh Freeze and his staff took over.
Earlier this week Freeze said Sawyer looked “tentative” at safety in the Rebels’ 66-31 loss to Texas and announced the Sawyer would move to corner.
Sawyer led the Rebels with 12 tackles against the Longhorns. There were problems elsewhere in the secondary as Texas quarterback David Ash completed 82.6 percent of his passes for 326 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
“The biggest thought is that we’ve got to do better on the vertical ball. We’ve got to take those opportunities away from teams. We can’t allow teams to get the ball over our heads,” cornerbacks coach Wesley McGriff said.
Sawyer’s move hasn’t been the only personnel news for the secondary this week.
Freshman Trae Elston – suspended for the Texas game for what the SEC office called a flagrant hit in the Texas-El Paso game – will replace Sawyer at safety, and is expected to draw his first college start Saturday at Tulane.
There was shifting in the secondary before the Texas game. Cliff Coleman, a third-year sophomore, began to earn more playing time against UTEP and by the Texas kickoff he had replaced popular two-sport player Senquez Golson, who turned down a million plus from the Boston Red Sox in 2011 to pursue college football.
Sawyer was third in the SEC with 13 passes defended last year. He had four interceptions, returning his first one 96 yards for the Rebels’ only touchdown in the 2011 opener against BYU.
His teammates are confident in Sawyer at corner.
“Just Charles being there creates another presence, and a lot of times you get coverage sacks, so it will be good for guys like us,” defensive end C.J. Johnson said.
Confidence is a fair question after the rebuilding Rebels struggled so mightily in their first big test of the season.
The revamped secondary will break in against Tulane, and it’s unclear exactly what type of test that represents.
What little Tulane has gotten done offensively has been in the passing game, but fifth-year quarterback Ryan Griffin is hurt, and Green Wave coach Curtis Johnson – the receivers coach for the New Orleans Saints last year – will likely turn to true freshman Devin Powell.
After Griffin was injured, Powell was 8 for 16 passing for 110 yards and a touchdown in a 45-10 loss to Tulsa.
McGriff predicts improvement in the secondary, not just in batting away balls but in returning them to the offense with interceptions.
Turnover margin was a season-long issue in 2011, and the Rebels have finished in the negative twice in two games this season.
McGriff: “We’ll get it. They’ll do it. You’ll see it, and turnovers come in bunches. Man when they start coming, it becomes infectious. It’s like a disease. It overtakes them. We’ll stick to the plan, remain confident and keep teaching them. They’re in position now and we just have to put the second piece to it, and that’s playing the football.”