By JOHN ZENOR
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Steve Sarkisian keeps hitting the jackpot when it comes to quarterbacks and other offensive playmakers.
A former USC and Washington head coach, Sarkisian left the Crimson Tide after the national championship game in January 2017 to head to the NFL. He took over an offense led by reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan and All-Pro receiver Julio Jones. Before that, he arrived at USC in 2005 with Matt Leinart returning after winning the Heisman.
Now, he’s back at Alabama with plenty of tools at his disposal — including another Heisman candidate in quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
“This isn’t as foreign to me,” Sarkisian said recently at Alabama’s media day. “I think what it is, is you come in and you try to evaluate the whole thing. We say, ‘Okay, how can I help this team continue to get better? How can I help these players improve and put them in the best position to have success, not only short term but long term?’ That’s our job as coaches.
“And then buying into the entire organization, and the program, and the values of the organization. That’s kind of my mindset — what I can do to help, do my part to put us in the best position to be successful.”
For starters, Alabama’s offense is definitely not broken so there’s little to fix.
Mike Locksley directed the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense last season before leaving to become Maryland’s head coach. Even with the departure of tailbacks Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris to the NFL, Sarkisian has a bountiful selection of offensive playmakers. The backfield still has former five-star prospects Najee Harris and freshman Trey Sanders and a bulldozing Brian Robinson Jr.
And Sarkisian said his offensive philosophy starts with running the ball.
Sarkisian brings a familiarity with Tide coach Nick Saban and his program — and with Tagovailoa. He recruited the quarterback when he was at USC and the left-hander from Hawaii was a 10th grader.
Following his firing at USC , Sarkisian worked in the 2016 season as an offensive analyst at Alabama in 2017. He took over as coordinator when Lane Kiffin left for Florida Atlantic before the national championship game. Then Sarkisian left for the Falcons , where he and the defensive and special teams coordinators were dismissed following a disappointing 2018 season.
“It’s good to see coach Sark come back,” Tagovailoa said. “I have built a relationship with him since I was being recruited my sophomore year of high school. I think if we had any coach come in, I still think we’d have to all be comfortable with what he has to bring to the table. It’s just a different way of learning.”
Learning from Saban was a big reason why Sarkisian made his initial stop in Tuscaloosa in 2016. He wanted to get a firsthand view of how Saban ran his program and what things he emphasized.
In the spring, he wasn’t hearing those messages for the first time.
“It just brought back a lot of thoughts and reminders and I was able to go back through some notes of why those things are important and then start to emphasize them on our own even on the offensive side of the ball to support that message,” Sarkisian said. “So I think it was big.”
He returns to the college ranks after two seasons in the NFL — much like Saban did after his foray with the Miami Dolphins.
The Falcons ranked fourth in the NFL in passing but 27th in rushing last season.
“I always had a lot of respect for Sark,” Saban said. “He’s very well-organized and does a good job with the players. He’s a good teacher. He’s got a really good personality. He’s easy to work with.
“He does a great job of managing the staff. I can’t really speak for him and how that helped his development as a coach, but my time in the NFL was very beneficial to me and how you are going to bring personnel to your team. And when you do that all the time, I think you get better at it.”