On to the Next

Charles Sawyer can't help but crack a smile when thinking back to the first day. Sometimes he sneaks in a laugh.

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It's funny to think about, really. The weather was rather drab, rain starting and stopping, leaving puddles around the entry ways to the indoor practice facility. He made his way to the team meeting room of the building, not really knowing what to expect from Hugh Freeze, who was holding the first meeting with his wide-eyed players as Ole Miss head coach.

Freeze energetically entered the room, instructing his team to clap on cue. Three claps, he said. This was how the team would begin and end every meeting.

"At first when he came in clapping, I was like, what is this guy doing? Now, every time we have a meeting, he does his three claps," Sawyer said. "Before the meeting ends, he does the three claps. It shows we're a unit. It shows we're ready for him to talk, we're ready to go to practice, we're ready to work as a unit. I like it. It shows that we have unity."

For Sawyer, Freeze and the team, this was the first step. A step towards repairing a broken program. A step towards bringing a divided team together. But it was only one step. There are many, many more steps to take to bring Ole Miss back from the misery of a 2-10 season.

Ole Miss failed in every possible way last season. The defense was near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in most statistical categories. The offense was equally as bad. The Rebels failed to win a conference game, 0-8 the final mark. They've won but one league game in the last two seasons.

Sawyer is used to the clapping now. Some five months have passed since that first meeting, including 15 practices in the late March and early April.

Charles Sawyer
Chuck Rounsaville

"I absolutely love coming to the IPF now," Sawyer said. "Every practice, I'm ready to practice. Every time we have a meeting, I'm ready to meet. They coaches, they're real laid back.

"They're ready to work, but they do it in their character. They stay in their character and they do it the way they want to do it. It's fun now. There's some people on this team I haven't seen smile. Now, I see them smiling every day. I love it."

Granted, it's easy to be excited and happy and eager to work in May. There's still newness to Freeze and staff, like driving the first 5,000 miles in a new Cadillac. Freeze walks around campus with a new-car smell.

No games have been lost. No real difficulties to overcome, outside of the number of academic issues throughout the team. No hurdles leaped or season-altering injuries.

But the foundation has been laid, from learning the defensive and offensive schemes to rebuilding a bit of the trust lost throughout the locker room. Sawyer said a lack of trust was a problem last season. He isn't the first to say such things.

"You've got to trust that the guy (next to you) is going to do his job," Sawyer said. "Other people were doing someone else's job and forgetting to do their own. Last season was a very long season, when it really didn't have to be.

"I'm seeing a change that Coach Freeze has brought to this team. I see a change in the players. Everybody's competing. Everybody's competing to a point that they want to compete so good, that the person next to them will want to do the same thing. It's bringing the team together."

Sawyer is entering his redshirt junior season. It's a big season for him, too. As the face of the defense, he'll soon start to receive attention nationally. The NFL Draft is available to him. He could leave Ole Miss at the end of the year, if he so chooses. He had the same option as a redshirt sophomore, though it wasn't a realistic possibility.

But that's well down the line.

For now, Sawyer enters the summer off a sophomore season that saw him earn All-America honorable mention distinction from College Football News. He finished third in the SEC with 13 passes defended, and he tied for 23rd in the nation and sixth in the SEC with four interceptions.

Charles Sawyer
Matthew Sharpe

Sawyer, who has split time between safety and cornerback in his career, ranked second on the team with 70 tackles.

"I put this on myself after the season I had last year. It's all a building process. I did what I did last year. It's building up this year to be even better," he said.

"I'm glad last year they switched me to safety so I could adjust to it and get to know the position better and play it at a college level, to show people that I'm not just a corner, or I'm not just a safety. I can be both."

Thoughts of the NFL are there, he said. It's the dream. However, his only focus is on improving on his sophomore performance, as well as leading a defense looking to rebound from back-to-back trying seasons.

"It gives you motivation. Anytime you put on your pads, or anytime practice gets hard, you think to yourself, man, you've just got to make it. If you really want to do it, then you've got to put in the work and make it. It's hard not to think about.

"I think the defense is going to be real good. I honestly do. Everybody's counting on each other and knows what each other's doing. You're responsible for your teammate next to you. If you work harder than he works or if you try to match what he does, there's no way that this defense can't be great."

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