Alabama may have seven new assistant football coaches this year, but not all of them are strangers to the program.
Steve Sarkisian is back as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator and play-caller, returning to the role he held for the final game of the Crimson Tide's 2016 season that ended with a loss to Clemson in the title contest of the four-team playoff. Sarkisian was an offensive analyst for most of the 2016 season under coordinator Lane Kiffin, but Saban parted ways with Kiffin after Alabama's mundane showing during a 24-7 win over Washington in the Peach Bowl national semifinal.
The Tide managed just 326 yards versus the Huskies, using Ryan Anderson's 26-yard interception return for a touchdown just before halftime to gather some breathing room at 17-7.
Alabama performed better offensively under Sarkisian in the 35-31 setback against Clemson, but the Tide were outgained 511-376. Worsening matters was the fact Alabama had a 150-92 advantage in yardage through the first five possessions for each team and a 14-0 lead.
"The guy did a really, really good job when he was here before," Saban said last Friday after his team's first spring practice, "and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him for what he did as an offensive coach before he came here. I don't think it's fair to criticize when a guy takes over a job one week before a game and has to go try and implement something because of the circumstances that we were in."
Prior to his first go-around in Tuscaloosa, Sarkisian had spent five seasons (2009-13) as Washington's head coach before taking over at Southern California. He guided the Trojans to a 9-4 season in 2014 but was fired midway through the 2015 season as a result of multiple alcohol-related incidents.
Sarkisian is one of two new assistants who have returned to Alabama, which has this week off due to spring break. Outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri had the same responsibility with the Tide for three seasons (2009-11) and in 2011 was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
After the heartbreaking loss to Clemson, Sarkisian was set to guide Alabama's offense in 2017 but then left for the offensive coordinator vacancy with the Atlanta Falcons, and he spent the past two seasons with them. He played to mixed reviews in Atlanta, which went 17-15 during his time there.
The Falcons this past season ranked sixth in the NFL with an average of 389.1 offensive yards per game, finishing fourth in passing (290.8) but 27th in rushing (98.3). Their ground game was hurt by the absence of two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, who played in just two games due to knee, foot and groin injuries.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan racked up 35 touchdowns against just seven interceptions and Julio Jones amassed 1,677 receiving yards, but those totals were not enough for Falcons coach Dan Quinn to bring Sarkisian back for a third season.
"If you look at his body of work with the Falcons — they were like sixth in the NFL on offense or whatever — there has to be some level of expertise to allow them to do that," Saban said. "I think he's a tremendous asset on our staff, and we're very pleased and happy to have him. We had a full list of people we went through to hire, and I feel like we were really, really fortunate to get a guy who was offered the Arizona Cardinals' offensive coordinator job to come to Alabama."
When Sarkisian had his one-game stint guiding the Tide, his quarterback was Jalen Hurts and his featured rusher was Bo Scarbrough, who broke a leg versus Clemson late in the third quarter. Sarkisian's primary weapons now are quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, running back Najee Harris and a receiving quartet of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
Though it is Sarkisian's offense again, it will always be Alabama's attack in the bigger picture.
"We're going to run our offense, and we're going to do the things that we do," Saban said. "I'm sure there are things they did in Atlanta that we can implement in our offense, just like we did when (2017 coordinator) Brian Daboll came here from New England. There are things we did with him that were very helpful, and we'll do the same thing if Sark has something he thinks is going to be beneficial to fit in with the other things that we're doing.
"He's got great knowledge and experience, and the biggest thing is that he's well-organized and has a good relationship with the players."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.