Former Illinois linebaker T.J. Neal announced Tuesday on Twitter that he will transfer to Auburn, where he will use his final season of eligibility. He also had interest from West Virginia.
Neal, a senior, will be eligibile to play immediately due to the NCAA graduate transfer rule. Auburn went 7-6 overall and 2-6 in the SEC last season, head coach Gus Malzahn's third at Auburn.
The Pennsylvania native surprised the Illini with his decision to transfer. A two-year starter, Neal would have been the Illini's leading returning tackler after totaling 109 tackles and 14.0 tackles for loss last season.
"Change is uncomfortable," Neal told Illini Inquirer last month. "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."
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 -- close friends of Neal.
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.