There’s not a lot to remember fondly about Ole Miss’ football season a year ago.
Really, make that the past two seasons.
Junior cornerback Charles Sawyer chooses to look at it differently. That’s because he has no interest, period, in looking into his rear-view mirror.
The Rebels open spring practice on Friday afternoon, and just about everything is new -- from the head coach, to the coordinators, to a more demanding approach that Sawyer says was a long time coming.
“It’s a new start, a clean slate,” Sawyer said. “You can already tell that everything’s going to be more demanding around here. There’s just more focus, more protecting the team.
“The coaches send us text messages throughout the day reminding us to always protect the team and do the right things. It’s just a different atmosphere, and we needed that. When you go into that locker room, everybody’s focused and everybody’s ready to work.”
Sawyer is quick to point out that he’s not bashing Houston Nutt and the Rebels’ previous regime.
Rather, he’s embracing first-year coach Hugh Freeze and the imprint that Freeze is trying to place on a program that has lost 14 consecutive SEC games and experienced a rash of player suspensions and dismissals over the past two years, not to mention some crippling injuries.
“It starts at the top and transfers down to the players,” Sawyer said. “There are a lot of rules, and if you don’t go by them, you’re not going to be a part of this program. Players see that and want to be a part of it. If they don’t, they leave and we keep on moving forward.”
Sawyer was diplomatic when asked if that same mentality existed under the previous coaching staff.
“It started fading away through all the adversities that we had,” Sawyer said. “That’s not an excuse. It’s just that I think we had it and then sort of lost it.”
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Sawyer has already demonstrated that he’s a team-first player and a player that performs regardless of what’s going on around him.
He came to Ole Miss from Miami, Fla., as a cornerback, but shifted over to safety last season because there was a pressing need there. Then when Marcus Temple was injured, Sawyer went back to cornerback and generally played wherever the Rebels needed him.
He played well, too, and enters the 2012 season as one of the more underrated defenders in the SEC. Because of Ole Miss’ struggles, Sawyer simply didn’t get the recognition that he deserved.
His 70 total tackles ranked him second on the team behind linebacker Mike Marry. Sawyer also intercepted four passes and returned one 96 yards for a touchdown in the opener against BYU.
Go back and look at how many defensive backs in the SEC last season racked up 70 or more tackles and intercepted at least four passes.
“My role on this team hasn’t changed,” Sawyer said. “I’m going to lead by example and make the plays I can make. I want to be a team player, and wherever they need me to play, I’ll play.
“Whatever I did last year, I have to multiply that by 10.”
And while others may dwell on the Rebels’ drought in the SEC, Sawyer is confident that better days are ahead. The last time he or any of his Ole Miss teammates tasted victory in an SEC contest was Oct. 2, 2010. The Rebels beat Kentucky 42-35 that day.
Since then it’s been a string of 14 straight losses, and 11 of those by 13 points or more.
“It hasn’t been easy, but what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” Sawyer said. “For me, it’s been motivation to get back out there, because none of us want to go through that again.”
Sawyer said Freeze’s message to the team has been one of unity and belief in one another.
“He tells us to play and not worry about making mistakes,” Sawyer said. “He wants us to compete and give it our all, and at the end of the day, whatever happens happens.
“We’re going to fight for each other this season. That’s something I can promise you.”