Photo by Jason Caldwell

Auburn Hoping Newcomer T.J. Neal Is the Real Deal

New Auburn linebacker T.J. Neal is trying to position himself for major playing time this season.

Auburn, Ala.--With Auburn having to replace its starting linebackers from the 2015 team, graduate transfer T.J. Neal's arrival is expected to give the 2016 group much needed game experience.

The 6-1, 235-pounder from McKeesport, Pa., is making a push for first string status at the middle and weakside linebacker spots. He noted that he is enjoying the challenge.

“It has been great getting a chance to come down here and play some big-time, prime-time football and play along with some great players and be coached by some great coaches,” Neal said after Thursday night’s practice.

Last season he was honorable mention All-Big 10 after making 43 solo tackles with 69 assists for the University of Illinois.

New Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said that Neal is off to a good start at Auburn because of his experience. "He’s been in two-minute situations in big games before at this level that shows up," Steele said. "He is a contact player. He fits the run, has good instincts against the run."

Asked if he has been welcomed by his new teammates, Neal said, “I think they are doing a good job with that. I came here and humbled myself. I just wanted to work hard and gain the respect of others so I think it was a very smooth transition.”

The only other Auburn linebacker with any college starting experience is junior Tre Williams, who made 55 tackles last year while starting three times.

“I think it was a great opportunity to come here and compete for some playing time, playing in this big-time conference,” Neal said of his decision to transfer from Illinois. “I think it was the right fit.”

Commenting on what he can add to the Auburn defense, Neal said, “Versatility. I think I can play the run, play the pass and I've got a lot of experience. I play pretty fast when I see anything and I can get downhill. I can play the run real well.

“I can breakdown film and breakdown formations and tell guys, 'This is the kind of plays you're going to get out of this formation.' Instead of like thinking so much, once you see the formation you can eliminate certain plays they can't run out of that formation.”

Photo by Jason Caldwell

T.J. Neal arrived at Auburn this summer after graduating at the University of Illinois. He has one season of eligibility at AU.

Neal said that he is trying to step into a defensive leadership role that is expected from inside linebackers. “I'm slowly doing that. I'm still gaining the respect of others. I don't want to overstep by boundary. I want to slowly continue to work through the leadership role.”

Neal said in addition to the heat, which he is struggling to deal with in August practices, playing at Auburn for defensive coordinator Steele and linebacker coach Travis Williams is not the same as being at Illinois. 

“It's a lot different,”?he said. “I think they put a lot more responsibility on the linebackers to tell everybody what to do. This is pretty different.”

With the opening game a little more than two weeks away when Clemson visits Jordan-Hare Stadium, the linebacker said he isn’t sure if he is going to be a starter. “Right now, Coach T-Will is running everybody out there to see what everybody can do. I don't know the depth chart. We are just out there playing.”

The transfer said he feels comfortable playing either of the inside linebacker spots. “It doesn't matter. I can play either one. They're both the same to me.”

Commenting on how he has done learning his assignments, Neal said, “I think it's coming along well, but I'm still getting comfortable with the terminology. It ain't so much playing football, it's the verbiage of communicating to others what is going on.

“Being a linebacker, the quarterback of the defense, you have to know everybody's job. I'm fine with what I have to do, but I have to become more comfortable with what the guys do around me.”

Williams, who is in his first full season as Auburn’s linebacker coach, is known for his energy on the practice field. “He's a very fiery guy,” Neal said. “He's excited every day. He comes in every day with the same attitude--ready to work and get better. He's an exciting young man.”

Neal said he has been impressed with the Auburn front four he is playing behind and the defense as a whole. “I think the sky’s the limit. It’ll be a top five defense and we’ll have fun. We are still working and still everyday making progress of becoming the best defense we can be.”

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