CHAMPAIGN — Barry Lunney Jr. admits a bit of nerves shortly after he first met Bret Bielema.
Which is why he ran a red light driving with Bielema in the car eight years ago.
“I’m uptight. I’m just meeting (Bielema) and I’m on the road (in Arkansas),” Lunney said. “Coach said, ‘You’re going to run that red light.’ And I was like, ‘Well, it seems like I was trying to there for you, Coach.’”
Needless to say, the relationship between the two has eased since then. So much so that Lunney is officially on board as Bielema’s new offensive coordinator at Illinois after previously working with him for five seasons at Arkansas.
“He was a great mentor to me,” Lunney said Wednesday afternoon in his first public comments since Bielema made the hire official this past Saturday. “I learned a lot during my transition from being in college early on, going into high school for a significant period of time, then going back into the college game at my alma mater, no less.”
The offensive coordinator at Texas San Antonio the past two seasons, the 47-year-old Lunney is in now in charge of a Power Five offense for the first time. But the former Arkansas quarterback is familiar with what Bielema wants and Bielema witnessed first-hand what a Lunney offense can look like. UTSA handed Bielema his first loss at Illinois when the Roadrunners came into Memorial Stadium last September and left with a 37-30 win.
Bielema saw the Illini’s offense sputter along for most of the fall under Tony Petersen’s guidance, an especially frustrating reality when compared to a resurgent defense under coordinator Ryan Walters. When he decided he needed to make a change at the end of a 5-7 campaign, he dialed up Lunney.
“The last two years at UTSA, I’ve seen what he’s been able to do as an offensive coordinator,” Bielema said. “He took that program to new levels of success. As I decided to make a transition, I began to look at different coaches, different offensive styles and different programs. I just kept gravitating back to Coach Lunney at UTSA.”
Roadrunners coach Jeff Traylor even took the time to speak with Bielema about Lunney. From Lunney’s schematic knowledge to his terminology and high-paced, pro-style offense, Bielema thinks it’s a seamless fit.
“Any time you have production in the throwing game and the running game the way (UTSA) had and the way it ranks nationally, it’s very, very eye-opening,” Bielema said. “But also for me, to have familiarity with him on just a certain core belief in how games are won.”
“I keep going back to being balanced,” Bielema added. “The ability to use a tempo and the ability to play to our players’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses will drive us.”
Establishing the run comes first — the Roadrunners averaged 183.5 yards per game last season — when it comes to playing complementary, physical football, but playing the game on the offense’s terms and tempo is another factor.
“My foundational belief is completely in line with coach Bielema’s belief about physicality,” Lunney said. “It starts with an identity of running the football, and so, a physical brand of football. I think if you saw our football team play the last couple of years, we hung our hat on that part of it.”
Can Lunney find the fix at Illinois, though?
Lunney faces a difficult task in revitalizing the quarterback position. It’s something his predecessors — including Petersen, Rod Smith and Garrick McGee — have each failed to do, with Illinois starting 11 different quarterbacks since the 2016 season.
At UTSA, Lunney developed Frank Harris into a strong quarterback, and the Roadrunners also had a trio of wide receivers who each had more than 750 receiving yards.
Meanwhile, Sincere McCormick rushed for 1,479 yards (No. 7 in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and 15 touchdowns in 2021.
Besides seeing eye-to-eye on scheme and style of play, Bielema views Lunney as an elite teacher, citing his experience at the high-school level as a coach and physical education teacher while at Bentonville High School in Arkansas from 2005 to 2012.
“He literally had to walk the walk of being a teacher and an instructor,” Bielema said. “That’s very important to me. A lot of people can talk. Very few people can teach. I think he’s an excellent teacher, which really gets me excited.”
Lunney liked to label his classes as Advanced Placement Physical Education. Although students weren’t always as enthused about the title, Lunney says he learned about the different ways in which people take in and commit information to memory.
“A visual learner, a kinesthetic learner, an auditory learner,” Lunney said, “that stuff really kind of enlightened me to (realize) I’ve got a room full of guys here where each one — even though I may have five quarterbacks in the room — there may be two of them that learn through visual learning. There’s one that learns through hearing and can grasp it. And yet, there may be one more that needs a walkthrough to make that come to life. That moment in time for me was really beneficial to me.”
In Champaign, Lunney inherits a quarterbacks room of Tommy DeVito and Art Sitkowski. DeVito, a Syracuse transfer who committed to the Illini last month, arrived on the UI campus this week. Sitkowski, who started three games last season after transferring ahead of the 2021 season from Rutgers, is rehabilitating from a broken arm and an offseason shoulder surgery that likely won’t have him competing in spring practices.
While the Illini lose most of their production on the offensive line, talented skill position players like running back Chase Brown and wide receiver Isaiah Williams are expected to return.
As the spring nears, Lunney will look to make the most of his new unit.
“We’re going to have a different fit and flare here,” Lunney said. “It’s not going to look exactly like it did because, ultimately, we want to build this offense around our strengths, like Coach (Bielema) mentioned. We’re going to continue to get know that.”