Steve Sarkisian trek from Alabama built pipeline to aid Texas rebuild

Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
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AUSTIN, Texas — Steve Sarkisian left his job as an Alabama assistant to be the head coach at Texas in January 2021 and quickly blazed a 735-mile trail from Tuscaloosa to Austin for others to follow.

The core of his offensive coaching staff made the trek and a handful of players looking for fresh starts or more playing time have been trickling in ever since. Sarkisian has three top assistants who were on the Alabama sideline when the Crimson Tide won the 2020 national championship.

Is he building Alabama West? The early returns – a 5-7 season in 2021 – have so far been rather un-Bama like.

Sarkisian and the Longhorns (1-0) have a chance to make a statement. The No. 1 Crimson Tide (1-0) play on the road against their future SEC opponent, which is hoping the success Sarkisian experienced in Tuscaloosa can finally rub off in Austin.

Sarkisian often credits Alabama’s Nick Saban as a major force in restoring his coaching career after he was fired at Southern California midway into the 2015 season and went into alcohol rehabilitation treatment.

Working under Saban first as an analyst in 2016 and then returning as Alabama offensive coordinator in 2019 and 2020 allowed Sarkisian an insider’s view of what Saban demands from his staff, as well as what he could demand from himself.

Sarkisian has said quite frankly that Saban saved his career.

“I owe so much to him, and I will never, ever forget that he and Ms. Terry have been tremendous in my life and my wife’s life and what they’ve done for us on and off the field, I owe them a great deal,” Sarkisian said at Big 12 media days in July.

The praise continued this week as Sarkisian prepared to face his former mentor for the first time from the opposite sideline.

“We could be up here for hours talking about things that I learned from him … and what he’s done for guys like myself,” Sarkisian said, also recalling the sting of Saban’s rebukes when something went wrong.

“If he’s yelling at you, you probably didn’t reach a level of expectation. When you can meet his expectations, you are doing something right.” Sarkisian said. “I loved my time with him.”

And when it was time to build his own staff, Sarkisian wanted assistants forged from the same fire that shaped him.

Texas offensive line coach Kyle Flood, special teams and tight ends coach Jeff Banks and quarterbacks coach A.J. Milwee all followed Sarkisian from Alabama to join his rebuild.

This group of coaches left a program that won eight Southeastern Conference championships in the 13 years since Texas last won the Big 12. Alabama has won six national titles since 2009.

Their first season in Austin produced the program’s first six-game losing streak in 65 years. “Patience” was the word around campus.

Saban this week praised his former assistant and has called Sarkisian one of the finest coaches he’s ever had on his staff.

“I think he’s a very bright guy, very well organized,” Saban said. “He did an outstanding job when he was here.”

Saban shrugged off a suggestion that having so many former Alabama staffers at Texas would give the Longhorns an advantage in drawing up their game plan.

“We’ve seemed to play several teams now that kind of know us, but you act like we don’t know them,” Saban said. “So just because somebody knows you when they play you, doesn’t mean they’re going to beat you.”

Saban is 25-2 against former assistants. Both losses came last season, to Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M and Kirby Smart‘s Georgia Bulldogs in the national championship game.

Texas has three former Alabama players on the roster this season. All were once highly-coveted recruits out of high school and Texas has proven an attractive landing spot, although none has made a major impact yet.

Tailback Keilan Robinson may be the fastest player on the team, but he’s third on the depth chart behind preseason All-American Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson. His biggest contributions so far have come on special teams, with a blocked punt last season and blocked punt return for a touchdown last week against ULM.

Texas expected to have to impact players from Alabama this season: tight end Jahleel Billingsley and wide receiver Agiye Hall.

Billingsley caught 17 passes and three touchdowns last season, but he’s serving a six-game NCAA suspension for an undisclosed violation that Sarkisian said occurred while at Alabama.

Hall was one of the top receiver recruits in the country but caught just four passes last season as a freshman and was suspended by Saban in April. After a quick transfer to Texas, he was expected to be a feature player in the Texas passing game, but he ran into more trouble when he was arrested for misdemeanor criminal mischief and was suspended for the first game.

Hall has been cleared to play this week. but it’s unclear how much time he’ll see against his former team.

“It’s great to have him back and going with us and having him be part of our program,” Sarkisian said. “Proud of the work that he did to get himself back.”

WVU RB Donaldson in concussion protocol, out for Baylor game

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) West Virginia running back CJ Donaldson is in concussion protocol and will miss next week’s home game with Baylor after he was injured in a loss to Texas, coach Neal Brown said Tuesday.

Donaldson remained on the ground after he was tackled on a short gain in the third quarter of Saturday’s 38-20 loss to the Longhorns. His helmet and shoulder pads were removed and he was carted off the field on a stretcher. After the game he was cleared to travel home with the team.

“He’s recovering,” Brown said. “There is a strict return-to-play (policy) that we have to follow here and I’m zero involved in it. All I do is ask the question. They don’t even start the return-to-play until they’re symptom free.”

Donaldson, a 240-pound freshman, leads the Mountaineers with 389 rushing yards and six touchdowns, with an average of 6.9 yards per carry.

West Virginia (2-3, 0-2 Big 12 Conference) is idle this week and hosts Baylor (3-2, 1-1) next Thursday, Oct. 13.

Taulia Tagovailoa says he visited brother, Tua, over weekend

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was able to visit his brother, Tua, last weekend after the Terrapins’ game against Michigan State, he said Tuesday in his first comments to reporters since Tua left the Miami Dolphins’ game against Cincinnati last Thursday with a frightening head injury.

Taulia played in Maryland’s win over Michigan State on Saturday but was not made available to the media afterward. He said Tuesday he was able to go to Florida and spend some time with his brother, who suffered a concussion four days after taking a hit in another game but was cleared to return.

“He’s doing good, everything’s fine,” he said. “My biggest thing was just seeing him and spending as much time as I can with him. I came back Sunday night.”

Tagovailoa said he appreciates the support for his brother.

“My brother’s my heart. He’s someone I look up to, someone I talk to every day,” he said. “It was just a hard scene for me to see that.”

Tagovailoa said he was in constant contact with his mother about his brother’s situation, and he was finally able to talk to Tua on Friday night.

“I really just wanted to go there and just spend time with my family, hug them and stuff like that,” Taulia Tagovailoa said. “But he told me he’s a big fan of us, and he’d rather watch me play on Saturday. … After that phone call, I was happy and getting back to my normal routine.”

Tagovailoa indicated that his brother’s injury didn’t make him too nervous about his own health when he took the field again.

“I guess when that happens to someone like my brother, or when anything happens to one of my family members, I don’t really think of how it will be able to affect me,” he said. “I just think of: `Is he OK? How’s he doing?”‘

Although it was a short visit to Florida, he said he and Tua made the most of their chance to be together.

“I just wanted to make sure he’s healthy and stuff, which he is,” Taulia Tagovailoa said.