Saban says Alabama is lucky to have Sarkisian

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban took issue with the criticism offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has faced for his brief time with the program during the 2016 season.

Sarkisian was initially hired as an analyst on staff but was elevated to offensive coordinator before the CFP National Championship when Lane Kiffin left abruptly to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Alabama lost to Clemson 35-31 in the title game after blowing a 10-point lead in the second half.

Not long after, Sarkisian surprised many when he left for the same position with the Atlanta Falcons. He was fired following the end of last season, and Saban brought him back to replace Mike Locksley, who became the head coach at Maryland.

"He did a really, really good job when he was here, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he did before he came here as an offensive coach," Saban said of Sarkisian, who was head coach at USC from 2014 to 2015, after Alabama's first day of spring practice on Friday. "And I don't think it's fair to criticize when he takes over a job one week before a game and has to go try to implement something because of the circumstance we were in.

"If you go look at the body of work at the Falcons, they were sixth in offense or whatever, so there has to be some level of expertise to allow them to do that. The players that I spoke to there really thought he did a good job and was a good coach."

Saban lauded Sarkisian's knowledge and experience, as well as his ability to form relationships with players.

"We had a whole list of people that we went through to hire," Saban said, referring to the seven different assistants he hired this offseason. "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."

Saban also talked about the team's focus heading into spring practice, saying the No. 1 goal was to "re-establish the Alabama factor," which meant focusing on the process, the team and avoiding distractions.

"We've always been a team that plays with a tremendous amount of discipline, had a lot of responsible and accountable guys who could go out there and do their job and be dependable," he said. "And everybody's always put the team first. The result of that has been we've been able to win a lot of games, guys have got a lot of individual accolades, got a lot of opportunities to play at the next level, and we've been able to win a few championships. I think it's important to re-establish that."

But one player was noticeably absent for the Crimson Tide's return to football. Sophomore linebacker Ale Kaho, who originally committed to Washington before receiving his release to join Alabama prior to last season, missed practice for what Saban said were "some issues he's dealing with."

Saban said the staff is trying to be supportive of the former three-star, but he was noncommittal about a return to the team.

"I don't know if in some point in time he'll be ready to come back and play football or not," Saban said.

Saban also said that defensive back Shyheim Carter (sports hernia) and linebacker Ben Davis (shin splints) would be limited by injuries all spring.

Reserve tight end Kedrick James, who was one of three players suspended for the playoff last season, will miss the first four games of the season, Saban said.

Alabama will take next week off for spring break before returning to practice on March 18.