As first reported by The News-Gazette, Illinois head coach Bill Cubit told IlliniInquirer.com that senior linebacker T.J. Neal will transfer for his final year of eligibility.
Neal, the team's top returning tackler (109 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss), graduated and will be immediately eligible to play at another program due to the NCAA graduate transfer rules. Cubit said Neal was blocked from transferring to any Big Ten university, Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan -- all teams Illinois plays during the 2016 season.
In a text he published on Twitter, Neal thanked former Illini coach Tim Beckman, who was dismissed in August for player abuse.
"He expressed going a little bit closer to home," Cubit said. "He's a good kid. I wish him all the luck."
Neal is the father of a toddler daughter. Cubit didn't go into detail of whether that was a part of Neal's decision-making process.
"He just mentioned what he wanted to do. We had a little discussion about stuff like that. Just said you have to decide what you want to do. He did."
Neal is the biggest loss of the recent run of defections from the program, which included backup wide receiver Marchie Murdock and six other graduating seniors who played backup roles, including linebackers LaKeith Walls and B.J. Bello.
The Illini were already thin at linebacker before Neal's defection. Now, two starters and two of the team's top three tacklers (Neal and graduated senior Mason Monheim) are gone -- only junior weakside linebacker James Crawford remains -- and two backups, Walls and Bello, are gone.
And the status of one possible replacement, Julian Jones, is still up in the air. Jones, one of the more talented linebackers on the team, is still suspended indefinitely pending the results of an ongoing investigation into an alleged sexual assault, stemming from an October incident near his hometown of Atlanta.
The Illini on Monday also lost a commitment from a linebacker, Michigan prospect Tim Walton. The projected spring linebacker depth chart could consist of Crawford (36 tackles last season), sophomore Tre Watson (21 tackles) and senior Mike Svetina, who has been hampered by injuries the past two seasons.
The Illini currently have two commitments from Class of 2016 linebackers: Florida native Jake Hansen and Georgia native Christion Abercrombie, Jones' high school teammate.
"We got some kids coming in," Cubit said. "We got some good young kids. We'll be fine. Next man up. He was a good player. We just move on from there."