Editor's Note: These lists feature our thoughts on the most important players for Auburn heading into the 2016 football season. We are counting down 16 key Tigers for the offense and 16 more for the defense as Coach Gus Malzahn's team prepares to face Clemson in the season opener.
Auburn, Ala.--There is no question that one of the concerns for the Auburn Tigers heading into the 2016 season is at the linebacker position where seniors Kris Frost, Justin Garrett and Cassanova McKinzy are gone from a year ago. While Tre Williams is back as the only player with real playing experience for the Tigers, he’s not the only experienced linebacker who will be suiting up this season thanks to the transfer of T.J. Neal from Illinois.
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 deflected, 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 nine, all in a stretch of four games.
That’s the type of production that Auburn is looking for in the middle of the defense, something that hasn’t been the norm for the Tigers since the days of Josh Bynes at linebacker.
Best Case Scenario: Neal steps in this summer and learns the defense well enough to hit the ground running when the Tigers take the field in August for preseason camp. With Tre Williams, Darrell Williams and DeShaun Davis three solid options at linebacker and guys like Montavious Atkinson and Richard McBryde in the wings, getting Neal in could give the Tigers a solid group for Travis Williams to work with. If Neal is ready to go when the Tigers face Clemson that’s great news for the Auburn defense.
Worst Case Scenario: A problem for Auburn could arise if Neal has troubles picking up the defense early enough in the season. With no experience to speak of outside of Tre Williams and Auburn facing Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M and LSU right out of the gate, the Tigers could have big problems at the position because there’s no time to grow up on the job for the young players.
Neal (52) was a high school standout in Pennsylvania before signing with Illinois.
Neal At His Best: Last season Neal had five games with double-digit tackles, but the best game came in his last with the Fighting Illini. Facing Northwestern he had 17 total tackles and four stops behind the line of scrimmage as Illinois almost pulled off the upset of the Wildcats.
Quote: "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."