TUSCALOOSA — When Alabama began its 13th set of spring practices under head coach Nick Saban on Friday, much of the Crimson Tide’s rebuilt coaching staff had been together for a little more than a month.
Nevertheless, the lone stalwart on staff — Saban himself — sounded quite pleased with how well all seven new assistant coaches have integrated themselves into the program in such a short period of time.
“Really pleased with the coaching staff that we’ve been able to put together,” Saban said Friday following the first day of Alabama’s spring practice, “how they’ve adapted, how the players have responded to them. That’s been a really positive thing for us.”
Unquestionably one of the most significant offseason additions was the return of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who comes to Tuscaloosa after a two-year stint as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator. That, of course, followed a one-year stay as an offensive analyst at Alabama that ended with a brief one-game promotion to play-caller ahead of the 2016 national championship game – which ended with a last-second 35-31 loss to Clemson.
When questioned about the hire for the first since the mid-February announcement, Saban made it clear Sarkisian has his full support moving forward, in spite of how his previous appearance as the Tide’s offensive coordinator ended.
“Well, my experience is the guy did a really good job when he was here," Saban said. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him for what he did before he came here as an offensive coach. 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 to implement something because the circumstance we were in.”
In two seasons at Atlanta, Sarkisian’s offense routinely ranked among the Top 10 in the NFL, finishing sixth overall averaging 389.1 yards a game in 2018 and eighth overall averaging 364.8 yards a game in 2017.
Still, Sarkisian’s unit never quite measured up to Atlanta’s high-powered offense of 2016 under then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who guided the NFL’s highest-scoring attack averaging 33.8 points and 415.8 yards a game that season before moving on to become the San Francisco 49ers' head coach.
A year ago, Alabama set program offensive standards for points scored (684 overall and 45.6 per game) and total yards (7,830), mostly behind a transcendent passing attack that averaged 323.6 yards a game with 52 total touchdowns under the direction of Tua Tagovailoa, now a junior.
Of course, Tagovailoa returns for his second season as a starter, firmly entrenched in that role.
Sarkisian’s ability to further develop Tagovailoa, as well as the other young quarterbacks on the Tide roster, will be important. So Sarkisian's ability to integrate his West Coast roots into the timing-based run-pass option attack that Tagovailoa seemed to run to perfection under then-coordinator Mike Locksley last season. Those West Coast roots are more akin to the short-ranged play-action passing attack that Lane Kiffin called upon often at Alabama during 2014-16.
And while there will certainly be an adjustment period as Sarkisian gets reacclimated to the college game, there are those that believe the move could be good for him.
“The field’s different, the game’s different, style of play (is different), but it winds up being a really good challenge for you," current Seattle Seahawks and former USC head coach Pete Carroll said last week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. "You feel like you’ve grown more. I think he’ll feel like the college game has slowed down to him to some extent, and it’ll look a little different to him than it did before. And he’ll only benefit from it.”
Another important addition was the hiring of new associate defensive coordinator and safeties coach Charles Kelly, who comes to Tuscaloosa after a one-year stint as Tennessee’s special-teams coach. He was defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech (2012) and Florida State (2014-17), replacing former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in that role in 2014.
In his role as “associate” defensive coordinator, the 51-year-old Kelly will work alongside 35-year-old first-year Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding to help develop the week-to-week defensive game plan.
“Look, Charles Kelly was a guy that I've oftentimes considered being a coordinator here,” Saban said. “I thought Pete did a really good job last year and should be the coordinator, but I also thought that Charles Kelly would be somebody who could do that (job) because he's been in our system with other people — Jeremy (Pruitt and Jimbo Fisher) at Florida State, Jeremy again at Tennessee.
“That's like having a coach that's been on our staff in terms of knowledge and experience and terminology. I just thought he was the best coach, best recruiter.”
It’s that last part — as a recruiter — where Saban thought Kelly, a former Auburn defensive back and native of Ozark who has more than a decade-worth of coaching experience within the state, could make obvious in-roads throughout Alabama that were missing with last year’s staff.
“I thought it was really, really important that he's an Alabama guy. When I say Alabama guy, he's coached in this state, people in his family coached in this state. He knows the high school coaches in the state,” Saban said. “I really felt like (with) last year's staff we really didn't have that connection with some of those local folks like we've had in the past. I thought it was important to get somebody on our staff that had great relationships with a lot of people in our state.”