This Saturday marks T-minus 7 days till Season 3 of the Sam Pittman era officially takes flight, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of story lines in “Week 0.” What appears to be an unexciting matchup on Saturday afternoon between a solid Mountain West program and a struggling Big Ten foe on the surface actually has quite a bit of intrigue for supporters of the Razorbacks.
The Arkansas football team doesn’t open up its 2022 campaign until Sept. 3 when it hosts Cincinnati in a top-25 showdown at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but a former head coach and former quarterback-turned-assistant will share a sideline once again as part of the 11-game slate that will whet the appetite of college football fans.
Illinois football head coach Bret Bielema, now in this second year, and his first-year offensive coordinator, Barry Lunney Jr., are scheduled to take on Wyoming in Champaign, Ill., at 3 p.m. CT on August 27 in a game that will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
It will be Lunney’s first opportunity to showcase his play-calling acumen at the Power Five level, as this offseason he was hired away from UTSA — where he worked under former Arkansas assistant Jeff Traylor for two seasons — to turn around one of the Big Ten’s worst offenses.
Barry Lunney and Illinois Football
That won’t be an easy task. Not only did Illinois rank 10th and 11th in total and scoring offense, respectively, out of 14 Big Ten teams last season, but Lunney had to teach his offense to everyone within the program.
Although he worked under Bielema at Arkansas, Lunney was the tight ends coach for that five-year stint. So on top of coaching up his players, the Fort Smith native also had to install the playbook amongst his coaches.
“We kind of went to school, a football school there for a while,” Lunney told the Illini Inquirer. “I was kind of the teacher there every day for about two months. … It ultimately just came down to grinding it out in the classroom.”
Lunney’s name is sprinkled throughout the UA record book from his time as Arkansas’ starting quarterback from 1992-95. That includes the Razorbacks’ first SEC West title his senior year and 40 career starts, the most by an Arkansas quarterback since joining the conference.
Considering he’s the son of a high school coaching legend in the Natural State, Lunney got into coaching after his playing days and was working for his father, Barry Lunney Sr., at Bentonville High when Bielema called him with the opportunity to coach at his alma mater.
When Bielema was fired following the 2017 season, Lunney was retained by Chad Morris and later served as the interim coach for the final two games of the 2019 campaign after Morris was fired.
Athletics director Hunter Yurachek actually interviewed Lunney for the head coaching position and publicly praised him for his performance in the interview, but ultimately hired Sam Pittman instead.
After seven seasons with the Razorbacks, Lunney left Fayetteville to become the offensive coordinator on Traylor’s staff at UTSA, where he was also tasked with a difficult rebuild.
The Roadrunners averaged just 20.3 points in 2019, which ranked 117th nationally, but that ticked up to 28.3 points per game (66th) in Lunney’s first season calling the shots and then to 36.9 points per game (11th) last year, when they cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history — climbing as high No. 15 — and finished 12-2.
Such a dramatic turnaround will likely be tougher in the Big Ten than Conference USA, but Lunney’s performance should be interesting to track for Arkansas football fans who may see him as a potential future head coach whenever Pittman decides to hang it up.
Arkansas Ties Aplenty at North Texas
It may be a school most fans would prefer to forget exists after it pulled off a fake fair catch play in a blowout win that made Arkansas the laughing stock of college football, but North Texas actually has multiple ties to the Razorbacks and the Natural State.
Most notably, former Arkansas walk-on Austin Aune was recently named the Mean Green’s starting quarterback ahead of their Week 0 road trip to UTEP for a C-USA showdown. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. CT and the game will be streamed on Stadium.
He spent just one semester with the Razorbacks, joining the team shortly after Chad Morris was hired and going through spring drills in 2018.
That is just a small footnote in what may be one of the best stories in college football this year, as Aune will turn 29 years old on Sept. 6 and is believed to be the oldest non-specialist in the FBS.
Originally a three-star recruit who signed with TCU in the Class of 2012, Aune opted to try his hand at professional baseball when the New York Yankees took him in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft. When that didn’t work out (he hit .226/.285/.355 across six minor league seasons and never advanced past High-A), he returned to the gridiron.
Although he’s started 12 games and thrown for 3,777 yards since becoming eligible at North Texas in 2019, this is the first time Aune has opened a season as a starting quarterback in college. Now a husband and father, the last time Aune was an opening day starter was his senior year of high school in Argyle, Texas — way back in 2011.
The Arkansas football connections don’t stop there, though.
Former Arkansas defensive tackle Enoch Jackson Jr., who was a high school teammate of current Razorbacks Jalen Carter and Taurean Carter, is listed as a starter on the Mean Green’s depth chart after playing well as a key rotational piece last year.
North Texas also lists four potential starting running backs, including North Little Rock product Oscar Adaway. A former three-star recruit whose only other FBS offers were from Colorado State, Southern Miss and Texas State, Adaway burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2020 when he ran for 572 yards and three touchdowns on 99 carries. He likely would have been a significant contributor on last year’s team, but tore his ACL in fall camp and missed the entire year.
Mataio Soli Debuts with New Team vs. the SEC
He is no longer playing in the SEC, but former Arkansas defensive end Mataio Soli will open the 2022 season against a team from his old conference.
Hawaii, which lists Soli as a starting defensive end on its depth chart, will host Vanderbilt in the final game of Week 0. Kickoff is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on CBSSN.
A heralded four-star recruit coming out of Georgia in the Class of 2019, Soli was a legacy recruit for Arkansas because his father, Junior Soli, was an All-SEC nose guard for the Razorbacks from 1992-95 before becoming a fifth-round pick in the NFL Draft.
Injuries forced Soli into action in the first game of his freshman year and he ultimately started the final 11 games of 2019 despite playing with a large cast protecting a broken hand. Unfortunately for him, he never built on that early playing time.
Soli saw his playing time diminish as a sophomore and then hardly got on the field for anything but special teams last year. When he failed to climb the depth chart in practice, Soli opted to hit the portal midway through spring ball and ultimately landed at Hawaii — a team needing to replace nine defensive starters from a year ago.
FCS Doubleheader on ESPN Features Pair of Former Hogs
Even though there are 11 games featuring at least one FBS team Saturday, ESPN is televising a pair of games between FCS foes. Interestingly, both of them feature a former Arkansas football player.
The first game probably has the most intrigue thanks to Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez — yes, that Rich Rod — accusing Stephen F. Austin of spying on the Gamecocks’ practices ahead of Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. CT kickoff, but the game also has a couple of players with ties to the Natural State.
First, former Arkansas running back Josh Oglesby now plays for the Lumberjacks. The sprinter-turned-football player spent two years on the Razorbacks’ track team and then two years on the football team before entering the portal and dropping down a level so he could potentially get some playing time.
The other connection is defensive end BJ Thompson, an England, Ark., native who began his career at Baylor. Over the last two years, he has racked up 21 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in just 22 games. Now a senior, Thompson is on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award (FCS Defensive Player of the Year) and is No. 36 on the 2022 Freaks List compiled by The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman thanks to a 4.56-second 40-yard dash and 40-inch vertical to go along with a 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame.
In the nightcap, Alabama State hosts Howard at 6 p.m. CT. Former Arkansas offensive lineman Ray Curry Jr. joined the Hornets out of the portal this offseason and is currently listed as their backup right tackle on the depth chart.
Arkansas Ties in FCS vs. ACC Matchups
They aren’t the sexiest matchups on the Week 0 slate, but a couple of games on the ACC Network also have Arkansas ties — albeit with backups.
When Florida State hosts Duquesne at 4 p.m. CT, former Arkansas cornerback Jarques McClellion will be a backup safety for for the Seminoles.
In the next game, which kicks off at 7:15 p.m. CT, North Carolina hosts Florida A&M. The Tar Heels’ backup quarterback is Morrilton native Jacolby Criswell, who lost the preseason battle with Drake Maye — but could still push him for the starting job this season.
Even though both players are backups, they could still get significant snaps if their games turn into blowouts.
While you wait for Arkansas’ season to start, here are some highlights from last year:
See what other former Razorback transfers are doing here:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…