Looks Like (he'll be the offensive coordinator at the) University Of Illinois - Barry Lunney Jr.

Jan 9, 2022

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I don't hand out Tom Cruise ratings for assistant coaches, but I will give you my thoughts on what I think of the hire. For this one, I'll just be clear up front - you're probably not going to like my evaluation. But here's my thoughts.

We'll just get this part out of the way. I don't believe there's such a thing as "great offensive coordinator." At least not in the way that people view offensive coordinators. Joe Brady was the next great football offensive mastermind after LSU's 2019 season, he's hired by the Carolina Panthers, and he didn't even make it two years (fired a month ago) before flaming out. People will cover that up with "well maybe he's just better suited for college than the NFL", but the whole thing, to me, was 84% "Joe Burrow passing to Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson is basically impossible to stop for college defenses".

This is not to say that there's not good playcalling and bad playcalling. I'm not claiming it's 99% Jimmies and Joes and 1% X's and O's. We've seen plenty of failed offensive schemes in Champaign with good players. Just look at the 2008 offense and then the 2009 offense. It can be assembled very well and it can be assembled very, very poorly.

We've experienced a lifetime of "assembled very poorly" the last 12 years. As I noted on Twitter the other day, here's the Illini offensive coordinators since Mike Locksley was hired away as New Mexico's head coach back in 2008:

Mike Schultz (2009) - Fired after one season
Paul Petrino (2010~2011) - Was let go when Zook was fired. All assistant coaches were retained for the bowl game but Petrino was gone as soon as Zook was fired meaning Jeff Brohm was the OC for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Billy Gonzales/Chris Beatty (2012) - Co-coordinators were fired after one season.
Bill Cubit (2013~2014) - Was promoted to interim coach in 2015 and then fired when Josh Whitman became the AD in March.
Ryan Cubit (2015) - Was promoted to OC by his father for the interim season (and got a raise from $92,000 as an assistant coach to $400,000 as the OC), but was then fired with his father.
Garrick McGee (2016~2017) - Fired after two seasons.
Rod Smith (2018~2020) - Served as the interim head coach for one game when Lovie was fired and then was not retained by Bret Bielema.
Tony Petersen (2021) - Fired after one season.

You want your offensive coordinators to be hired away, either as offensive coordinators for blue blood programs or as head coaches at small programs (like Locksley). The last eight Illini offensive coordinators (nine if Gonzales and Beatty are two) haven't really been wanted by anyone.

Just look at the landing spots for the last four. Bill Cubit became the head coach at Martin County HS in Florida. Ryan Cubit went back to medical device sales. Garrick McGee was hired as an analyst at Missouri. Rod Smith was hired as an analyst at Virginia. So yes, I think there are bad choices as offensive coordinators. Every organization in the world has a "that guy should have never been promoted to that position".

But I never see OC hires as "man, he's just a fantastic offensive coordinator - I can't wait for this great offense". Football is too cyclical. Chip Kelly was the greatest college offensive mind until he wasn't. Jeff Scott was the next great offensive innovator at Clemson and his offense doesn't work at South Florida. Kendal Briles was a superstar at Baylor and then a complete disaster at Florida State and now a superstar again at Arkansas. Tom Herman went from The Reason Iowa State Has Any Offense At All to The Reason Ohio State Won A National Title With Their Third-String Quarterback and that earned him the head coaching job at Houston where he was The Next Great Offensive Mind In College Football followed by a full face plant at Texas with 50 four-stars to work with.

So after seeing hundreds of similar scenarios play out, I've adopted this "I'm just not sure 'Great Offensive Coordinator' is even a thing" stance. There are good ones, and there are bad ones, and there are coaches who understand how to teach a certain offense over a long period of time (Mike Leach, Paul Chryst) and coaches who are completely in over their heads as coordinators (Gonzales/Beatty, Ryan Cubit), but if you made "best and worst offensive minds in college football" list today and then made a list in five years, I can almost guarantee you some of the names will switch lists. It's constantly evolving.

And, of course, sometimes "great coordinator" just means "had a great quarterback". Time will tell if that's Joe Brady's legacy, but there are so many examples of a coordinator clicking with one QB and having a great season/seasons. We've seen great quarterbacking fool us into thinking "wow, great coordinator" before.

The best Illini example (in my mind): Nathan Scheelhaase and Bill Cubit. That was the biggest "click" we've seen in the last 10 years. Here's Scheelhaase's stats as a junior in 2012 (Gonzales/Beatty) and as a senior in 2013 (Cubit):

2012: 149-246 (60.6%) for 1,361 yards, 4 touchdowns, 8 interceptions
2013: 287-430 (66.7%) for 3,272 yards, 21 touchdowns, 13 interceptions

The big thing that clicked, as you might recall: Cubit liked to let his QB make the play call on the field. I just looked in the wayback machine and couldn't find the exact quote, but I believe Cubit said he wants his QB to initiate the play "60% of the time". And that's why he and Scheelhaase clicked so well. Cubit would send out a formation. Nate would read the defense and call the play. An offensive coordinator on the field. Passing yards go from 1,361 to 3,272.

And as a result, the majority of the fanbase was thrilled with Bill Cubit as the offensive coordinator after the 2013 season. 2012 offense using SP+: 102nd nationally. 2013 offense: 38th. Finally we have a Great Offensive Coordinator!

2014: 71st in offense
2015: 104th

Right back down. He couldn't find another Offensive Coordinator On The Field and never regained the offense of 2013.

Rod Smith is similar. 2018, he arrives and brings with him a transfer quarterback (AJ Bush). After 2017's disastrous offense (96th nationally), the offense makes a jump to 69th nationally. 2018 was probably the second-best offensive season of the last 10 seasons (next to Scheelhaase in 2013). But it was the high point of Rod Smith's three seasons. The next two:

2019: 92nd in offense
2020: 82nd

This season, Tony Petersen's offense fell even further (96th). And when you compare that with what Ryan Walters did on the defensive side (Illinois was 88th in 2020 and Walters boosted that to 33rd nationally), you can see why Tony Petersen was fired after one season.

But none of that really changes me from my view that "install progressive scheme/recruit to that scheme" is the answer to every offensive college football question. "Fit" seems to be everything, especially with the quarterback he'll be directing. We've had two "fit" seasons in the last 10 years, I think (2013 Scheelhaase/Cubit and 2018 Bush/Smith), but that's pretty much it. Petersen/Peters just didn't get there in 2021.

So now it's Lunney/whoever for 2022. And I'm not sure I can say I know what that's going to look like more than any of you could say. On the surface, it seems to be a Petersen 2.0 hire (but this one being an OC who has worked with Bielema before). Here's what I mean by that.

-In 2020, Tony Petersen is the OC at App State running Shawn Clark's offense. They finish 9-3, Petersen's offense finishes 37th (SP+), and Petersen is hired as the Illinois OC.
-In 2021, Barry Lunney Jr. is the OC at UTSA running Jeff Traylor's offense. They finish 12-2, Lunney's offense finishes 40th (SP+), and Lunney his hired as the Illinois OC.

I really like UTSA's offense when they beat us in September. I'm sure I would have really liked App State's offense had we played them in 2020. I'm hopeful that this is finally a hire where some blue blood swoops in a few years from now and steals the Illinois offensive coordinator. It's been way too long since someone/anyone has wanted to hire our offensive coaches.

But I'm not sure I can give you much more than "hope it works". We hired an OC from the Sun Belt who had the #37 offense and it didn't work. We're now hiring an OC from Conference USA who had the #40 offense and I really, really hope it works.

"Works" isn't the best way to say this. "Fit" is the best way to say this.

Here's to hoping Lunney Jr. and QB-to-be-named-later give us a 2013 Nathan Scheelhaase/Bill Cubit kind of FIT.


neale stoner on January 9, 2022 @ 08:35 PM

Seems to me the Cubits were reasonably effective with Reilly O’Toole and Wes Lunt—they adapted the offense to which of those two was playing QB. I don’t understand why we abandoned the idea of a mobile QB this past season. Who insisted on playing Peters and Sitkowski, effectively running Duece Spann out of town? Bielema or Peterson, or were they in agreement? Sure looks like Peterson is being sacrificed.

IBFan on January 9, 2022 @ 09:09 PM

IW, Deuce aren’t QBs. They were athletes that the previous staff said they could try and make it at the collegiate level as QBs. Neither was anywhere close to accurate. Saying Deuce was run out of town is such bs. Love IW and Deuce, wish Deuce stayed but he had other ideas. Peterson is being fired for absolutely horrific play calling and personnel choices. If you can’t rewatch games and be baffled by Jakari running into the middle of the line on 3rd and 1 or watch an entire half of failed 3rd down calls and neither Ford or Barker get targeted you simply don’t understand the game.

Illiniboat on January 9, 2022 @ 10:57 PM

I think both of them could have, at least, matched Peters gruesome completion percentage and there would be some possibility of them developing. I just hope there's a transfer coming.

DB50 on January 9, 2022 @ 10:31 PM

I happen to disagree with you Robert because Lunney has been successful at every stop before Illinois. Before he arrived, UTSA ran a mediocre offense. Like Ryan Mallory, he found out what the strengths were of his players & played to them. He also happens to be a dynamic recruiter which is something Illinois hasn't had at OC in quite a while. I know you weren't in favor of firing Petersen, but to retain him would have saddled Bielema with an anchor that may have sunk the Illini FB.

SactownIllini on January 10, 2022 @ 01:24 AM

Yeah I have the feeling this was more about recruiting or the appearance. Lunney perhaps more attractive to potential recruits than Petersen.

MuckFichigan92 on January 9, 2022 @ 11:50 PM

So are OCs the same as PKs in that they are all the same? I do not understand how many are terminated after his first season. Many HCs have made mistakes with the selection. I would think any diligence would have prevented those mismatches.

danny on January 10, 2022 @ 02:08 PM

Robert seems like you are a believer in the Ron Zook philosophy - “it’s about the John’s n Joe’s not the X’s and O’s”.

Bear8287 on January 10, 2022 @ 11:52 PM

ZOOK: "Thanks, good to be here, you know I worked with Mike a number of years back and he’s got exactly what it takes to develop the Maryland Terrapins into just, fine fine young men. I I I’ve admired his energy, how little he sleeps and he’s taken one of my sayings, the words I coach by, even farther than I ever did. It’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s about Jimmies and Joes. It’s not about assignments or schemes."

Ron Zook Swings The Gate Open And Skis Back Into The Big Ten

ktal on January 10, 2022 @ 02:11 PM

The fact that Alabama can rotate OC's as often as they do and still be as good as they are seems to support the idea that having NFL quality QBs and WRs is the difference maker. Because Alabama has those every year.

seanf on January 10, 2022 @ 05:27 PM

Even if he isn't a better playcaller and X's and O's guy (I think he is, watching tape, he gets easy yards based on defense formation), he is definitely a better proven recruiter. I think Petersen was fired because he was so poor in this area. It's an upgrade. How big of an upgrade, remains to be seen.

IBFan on January 10, 2022 @ 07:36 PM

Alabama shouldn’t be used as a reference for college football.

Groundhogday on January 11, 2022 @ 09:49 PM

A good coordinator is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for a good offense. You also need talent and experience that matches the offensive system requirements.

We can’t be sure Lunney is a good coordinator, but given past success it seems likely. Let’s hope the staff can assemble the players Lunney needs to be successful.

Norcal Illini on January 12, 2022 @ 11:13 PM

I watched the podcast with Werner and Lehman where they talked about this. Lehman seemed to think the change was based in large part on what they were hearing on the recruiting trail. There were issues with play calling during the year that were head-scratching. After the Northwestern game, and even the first drive of the Iowa game, I wondered why we hadn't seen that kind of play all year, injuries or not.

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