Bob Holt is in his fourth decade as a Razorbacks beat reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He began at the Arkansas Democrat in 1981.
Fayetteville’s ‘Three Musketeers’ all Hogs now
Fayetteville High students (left to right) Brooks Ellis, Alex Brignoni and Austin Allen get ready to pose for a group photo after they signed their letters of intent to play football at the University of Arkansas during the official ceremony Wednesday afternoon.
FAYETTEVILLE Barry Lunney Jr. was Bentonville High School’s offensive coordinator when Fayetteville quarterback Austin Allen, safety Alex Brignoni and linebacker Brooks Ellis helped the Bulldogs beat the Tigers in the Class 7A state championship game 29-28 in overtime in 2011 and 31-20 in 2012.
Now Lunney is Arkansas’ tight ends coach and Austin, Brignoni and Ellis are part of the Razorbacks’ signing class.
“The more I watched them and the more I followed them, it was absolutely a no-brainer,” Lunney said Wednesday of signing the Fayetteville trio. “Those three guys all have the ability to not only play here, but to be impact players here for our university.
“During their official visit I said, ‘Man, am I glad to be on your team.’ It was kind of a light-hearted moment, but you want to surround yourself with guys that are winners. These kids are special.”
Allen, Brignoni and Ellis made oral commitments to sign with Arkansas last summer, when John L. Smith was interim coach after Bobby Petrino had been fired.
“We all kind of bought into the university, just the whole program and how much money they’re putting into the new athletic facilities,” Allen said. “It just shows the state and the university believe in the football program.
“We also knew [Athletic Director] Jeff Long was going to make a great coaching decision whenever the time came, and he did. We’re all excited we jumped on boardwhen we did.”
Long hired Bret Bielema, who led Wisconsin to a 67-28 record in seven seasons, including Big Ten Conference championships the past three seasons. Shortly after taking the Arkansas job, Bielema met with Allen, Brignoni and Ellis in his office at the Broyles Center for about 90 minutes.
“It was just really neat to see those kids talk about why they wanted to be here, to see their interaction, to see their leadership skills,” Bielema said. “Those ‘Three Musketeers’ will be somebody you hear about for a long time, I think.”
Allen, Brignoni and Ellis took part in a signing day ceremony at Fayetteville’s gymnasium.
“To see them come in as little snotty-nosed ninth graders, and then to work hard and believe in what they’re being taught to do to get to this point here - after back-to-back championships - is an awesome feeling,” Fayetteville Coach Daryl Patton said. “They’re great, down-to-earth kids who just love the game of football and love being around their friends and family.”
Allen, Brignoni and Ellis have grown up together.
“We were on the same traveling basketball, baseball, everything team back in elementary school and all that,” Allen said. “Not many people get to continue their athletic career with their two best friends.”
For Wednesday’s ceremony, Ellis wore the Razorbacks tie that belonged to his late grandfather, David Lashley, who lettered as an Arkansas offensive and defensive lineman form 1951-1953.
“I’ve pretty much wanted to be a Hog my whole life,” Ellis said. “I’m blessed to be able to sign the paper today.
Brignoni said he’s eager to get on campus this summer and begin working out with his new teammates.
“As a sophomore, I had no idea this was in my future,” Brignoni said. “As a junior, things started picking up and I was like, ‘Wow, I might be able to play at the next level.’ I’m just glad it’s with the Hogs and with my best friends.”
Allen has especially strong ties to Arkansas. His father, Bobby, is the Razorbacks’ director of high school relations after being an assistant coach the previous 15 years, and his older brother Brandon, is a redshirt sophomore quarterback.
Austin Allen said he’s excited to be a teammate of his brother’s again, as they were at Fayetteville.
“I learned a lot in high school whenever he was a senior and I was a sophomore,” Allen said. “I feel like that’s why I was such a good quarterback, honestly, just learning behind him. I can’t wait to get up there and compete against him and all the other quarterbacks also.”
Bielema said Arkansas’ coaching staff leaned on the Fayetteville trio to help sway other recruits.
“I knew they believed in this place for what it was, beyond any coach or anything like that,” Bielema said. “They just love what a Razorback means.”
Lunney starred at Fort Smith Southside before becoming the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback midway through his freshman season 1992. As a senior in 1995, he helped Arkansas win its first SEC West title.
So Lunney said he understood why Allen, Brignoni and Ellis committed to Arkansas when they did and stayed with the Razorbacks after a 4-8 season.
“That spoke very strongly to me, and it brought back a lot of memories,” Lunney said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys, because I know it runs deeper for them.”
Sports, Pages 21 on 02/07/2013