Former Illinois linebacker T.J. Neal told IlliniInquirer.com on Wednesday that he'd considered leaving Illinois for "the last two weeks" before announcing his intentions to transfer elsewhere for his final season of eligibility.
"Change is uncomfortable," Neal said via phone on Wednesday afternoon. "Change is very uncomfortable. There were a lot of changes going on with the University of Illinois football team, and I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to take my fifth year, my last year. ...I wanted to go elsewhere and be in a very trustworthy environment."
After graduating, Neal -- who was set to be the Illini's returning leading tackler (109 tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss) -- will be eligible to play immediately at another program due to the NCAA's graduate transfer rule. His defection is a big blow to the Illini, who already have lost staring linebacker Mason Monheim to graduation and senior backups LaKeith Walls and B.J. Bello to transfer. Also, rising sophomore Julian Jones' status for next season remains unclear. He is on campus and on the team roster but is suspended indefinitely until his legal situation is resolved.
Neal met with Illinois head coach Bill Cubit (read Cubit's comments on Neal's transfer here) recently to discuss his intentions to transfer.
"I told him my reasons," Neal said. "He asked for me to stay here. He wanted me to play here and stay here. But I just didn't see eye to eye with the changes that are going on with the football team."
Illinois football has undergone great turmoil in the past year. Illinois dismissed former head coach Tim Beckman a week before the season due to results of an investigation of abuse of players. Cubit, the offensive coordinator, was promoted to interim coach and led the Illini to a 5-7 record with the team losing six of its final seven games, mostly due to offensive struggles.
With an interim athlteic director (Paul Kowalczyk) and interim chancellor (Barbara Wilson) in place, Illinois elected to reward Cubit with a two-year deal, which was criticized greatly.
Cubit turned over much of the defensive staff, including co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who left to take the same role at Penn State. Neal's linebackers coach, Mike Ward, also was not retained and was replaced by former Western Michigan assistant Tim McGarigle. Defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair was elevated to the full-control defensive coordinator and will make changes to Banks' 4-2-5 scheme.
Neal did not agree with the changes.
"Banks was a great coach," Neal said. "I had a great relationship with him and Coach Ward. You could say (their departures played a role in my decision). It's just change is uncomfortable. You get a different linebackers coach, a different defensive coordinator, different assistants when you're used to this and you're comfortable with this. Certain things change and you don't agree with the vision that they have. That's what it came down to. I didn't agree with some of the changes. I wanted to further myself by taking advantage of this fifth year and be able to go wherever I want to go to play football.
"Beckman did a lot as far as the opportunity he gave me to play for a Big Ten program. He did what he could for the program. When Coach Cubit got the job, people were excited. People were looking forward to a lot of things. We came into the season as underachievers and a lot of things didn't go as we had planned."
The transfers of Walls and Bello, who were members of Beckman's first Illinois recruiting class in 2012, also impacted Neal's decision.
"Some of my classmates who I came in with were released and headed off to a different school," Neal said. Those were my brothers. Those are the guys I came in with, guys who were in the same room as far as me playing the same position."
In his text announcement on Twitter, Neal thanked Beckman but did not thank Cubit. He said that wasn't meant as an insult to Cubit.
"There's no specific reason," Neal said. "I didn't have much communication or relationship with him. With Beckman, he came to my house. He came to my high school. Him and Mike Ward, we sat down, we talked and I had a relationship with Tim Beckman and Mike Ward. Coach Cubit was an offensive guy. He did what he did. He did his job over there. Any football team, a lot of times, it's not segregated but it kind of is. You don't talk to the offensive guys as much as the defensive guys because you play defense. It was no shade or no low blows meant toward their direction. I wish him and the Fighting Illini the best of luck this year. It's sad that I can't be a part of it, but I got to do what's best for me and my family."
Neal said he hasn't heard from any schools yet and that he's letting his high school coach handle any inquiries. The McKeesport, Pa., native said it'd be "ideal" to move closer to his family near Pittsburgh.
"Right now, I'm really just trying to come around to myself," Neal said, "and balance my emotions with accepting some of the things that I chose to do."