Auburn, Ala.--Visiting West Virginia last week in search of a home to play his fifth and final year of football, 6-1, 235 linebacker T.J. Neal was on Auburn's campus Monday and Tuesday and left with his answer, committing to the Auburn Tigers. Spending time with the coaching staff and checking out the facilities, Neal chose Auburn over the Mountaineers and will be back on campus in May following his graduation from Illinois.
"It has been an honor to be given a chance to play college football," Neal said. "For my senior year I chose to sign with Auburn University. I want to thank the coaching staff at Auburn for giving me this opportunity. Also I want to thank my family, friends and significant other for helping me through this uncomfortable time. I am excited for this next chapter in my life. I want to give God the glory for this great opportunity that he has presented me with."
Getting a chance to see Auburn and meet with the coaches and several players, including former Illinois teammate Paul James and senior defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence, Neal said he was impressed by the atmosphere he found surrounding the campus and program and that was huge for him.
"It's just the culture and tradition they have down here," Neal tells Inside The Auburn Tigers. "They push family and I felt the atmosphere was great. I felt like it was very genuine while I was down there. They kind of knew about me before I got down here, which was very intriguing.
"It will be great," he added of having James at Auburn. "That will make the transition a lot easier. I trust the guy and have been around the guy for two years so I can hang around him and be comfortable with him."
A three-star prospect as a high school senior out of McKeeseport, Penn., 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.
With Auburn losing four senior linebackers from last season and returning just Tre Williams and JaViere Mitchell with any experience, the Tigers have a true need at the position for a veteran influence and Neal said that was an important piece of the puzzle for him in the end.
"It was great because I can come right in and learn the plays and step right in and just pick up where I left off last year and have a great senior year," Neal said. "It just feels great to have it done. It was a great experience and I received a lot of phone calls once I announced my release. It just feels great."