Champaign, Ill.--The Auburn Tigers have very little experience returning at linebacker heading into the 2016 season, but the Tigers could be in line to land veteran T.J. Neal from Illinois as a graduate transfer in a move that could provide immediate help for Coach Travis Williams at the position.
With Tre Williams and JaViere Mitchell the only players with any experience at the position heading into spring practice, Auburn is in the market to add a fifth-year player and the 6-1, 235 Neal could be the perfect guy to give the younger players at the position some valuable leadership next year if he decides to make the move after visiting campus in just over a week.
Having already earned his stripes in the Big 10, Neal said the opportunity to play in the SEC and the opportunity with Auburn’s lack of depth makes it a great place to finish out his college football career.
"I have only seen Tre Williams who had some concrete evidence of tackles and of playing some time on defense," Neal said. "Besides him when I watched things I didn't see anybody else that played linebacker other than special teams.
"Sometimes I can't believe the process I'm going through as far as being re-recruited again," he added. "Certain schools have contacted me that I never had any contact with coming out of high school (McKeeseport, Penn.). It's just awesome to be back on the market and understand your value as a player.
"Going down there and playing in the SEC would be great. You would be playing against some of the best players in the country and playing with some of the best players. Down there in the South they really love the game of football and the fans and just everything about it. It's just a real big deal."
Getting a head's up about Auburn from close friend and former Tulsa player Brandon Marion, Neal said the Tigers immediate jumped into the picture for him because of the need for lineabckers and because of the respect for Malzahn.
"A guy I have known for some time was coached by Coach Malzahn when he was at Tulsa," Neal said. "Once I got my release and was available to talk to other schools he went out there and was calling schools to see who was in the need for a Mike linebacker that could come in and play immediately and have an impact on the defense. He contacted him (Malzahn) and he watched my film and it was all downhill from there."
A three-star prospect out of high school, Neal redshirted his first season at Illinois before playing in all 12 games in the 2013 season and finishing with 38 tackles. Moving into a starting role as a sophomore Neal stepped up his game in a big way as he had 98 tackles, six and a half tackles for losses, four passes defensed, three quarterback hurries, one interception and one forced fumble on the season.
Last year Neal was even more impressive, notching 109 tackles, two sacks and 14 tackles for losses. Almost half of that total came in just four weeks when he had his biggest games against Iowa with 14 tackles, Middle Tennessee State with 13, Nebraska with 10, and Wisconsin with 9, all in a stretch of four games.
Getting his degree in Sports Management in May, Neal said right now the goal is to find a place that fits what he's looking for and that is early playing time and the opportunity to finish out his career on a high note. With plans to visit West Virginia on Monday and Auburn on Feb. 15, Neal said he'll have his decision soon after that trip to the Plains.
"It's awesome to be going into my third year as a starter wherever I go," Neal said. "The experience of being a three-year starter would look good on my resume and look good on the next level.
"I'm going to make my decision after I make my visit to Auburn," he added. "After that I should have my mind made up."
Neal said he graduates on May 14 and plans to move to his new home very soon after to begin working with the strength and conditioning coaches to prepare for the 2016 season.