By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
FAYETTEVILLE — New Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. understands the perception following him this week.
He’s a former Razorback, who played for the program from 1992-95. He worked as a graduate assistant for Arkansas football in 1998-99. And he has spent the past eight seasons working in the state as Bentonville High’s offensive coordinator.
So, naturally, he’s filling the role of "Arkansas guy" on coach Bret Bielema’s staff.
"I think that obviously that got my foot in the door," Lunney Jr. said. "But I think that my ability to communicate and to develop relationships and to coach football … As we went through the interview, I think it came out and helped me as well."
Lunney Jr. spoke about his new job at Arkansas, one he called a "very large dream," during a teleconference with the media Wednesday morning. He became the ninth coach hired by Bielema, returning to college football after an eight-year absence.
Lunney Jr. called it a "bittersweet" move because it means he also is leaving his father’s staff at Bentonville High. But it’s a step he’s eager to take.
"It has been a very special opportunity for me to work with him and under him," Lunney Jr. said. "I knew that was going to be kind of a once-in-a-lifetime chance when it arose eight years ago. I didn’t know it was going to be as long as it was, but I’m glad that it was because it was a special experience and I’ve learned a lot from him. Obviously at this point, he was very excited for me and felt the same way.
"He was sad to see me go. But he was very excited for me and my wife Janelle and our family for this opportunity because he knows that it has been on my heart and it’s been something that’s been a desire of mine."
He’ll coach tight ends and work closely with the offensive staff, which is led by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Lunney said he didn’t know Chaney until going through the interview process, but believes the two have meshed.
Lunney Jr. will coach a tight end position that is relatively thin after starter Chris Gragg’s graduation. The group will be led by returning senior Austin Tate and sophomore Alex Voelzke. In-state star Hunter Henry also is a verbal commitment.
Lunney Jr. recognized he’ll have another role with the program, too, after running backs coach Tim Horton left for a new position at Auburn last week.
Horton, who worked at Arkansas for six years, was a valuable commodity because of his deep ties to the school and to the state, where he knew every high school coach.
"I do think that’ll be a certain sense of my responsibility, a certain sense that our former lettermen and former players here are going to have somebody that they can identify with," Lunney Jr. said. "Not that that’s just 100 percent totally crucial, but I think it is a very vital thing for players to feel like they have somebody they know that they can relate to, they can trust that is on the inside.
"It gives them a certain sense of belonging to the program."
Lunney Jr.’s last stint as a college coach came at San Jose State in 2003-04, when he was the program’s co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. He also spent three years as an offensive assistant at Tulsa from 2000-02.
He planned to begin recruiting for the Razorbacks as early as Thursday, but must first pass the NCAA’s recruiting rules test. Lunney Jr. said he was taking a practice test immediately after Wednesday’s teleconference and the real thing later in the day.
Lunney Jr. called it his first priority during his first day as an Arkansas assistant.
"It’s obviously an exciting time in Razorback football with a new era under Coach Bielema, a new facility coming real soon and just the excitement surrounding the program. I’m honored to be a part of it and looking forward to getting to work."