Lunney’s skills ‘open eyes’ to Bielema | Sports

  Lunney's skills 'open eyes' to Bielema |  Sports

“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.’”

“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.”

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 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.

Story Highlights

  • Which is why he ran a red light driving with Bielema in the car eight years ago.

  • 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.

“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.

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.”

Meanwhile, Sincere McCormick rushed for 1,479 yards (No. 7 in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and 15 touchdowns in 2021. 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.