Auburn linebacker T.J. Neal’s most memorable moment on the Plains going into this weekend was a series of disgruntled tweets about playing time in the season-opener against Clemson.
“What a night it been for me,” Neal tweeted. “A player who have 25 career starts and many stats Sat on the bench all night . Gots be more than life this.”
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele brushed off the incident, but coach Gus Malzahn didn’t dress Neal the following week.
When Neal returned to the sidelines, he still didn’t have much of a role.
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Auburn’s once thin rotation at the position turned into a waiting line with Deshaun Davis and Tre’ Williams establishing themselves as All-SEC caliber linebackers.
Neal waited his turn playing mostly in garbage time of recent blowouts, but Auburn had a much bigger need for an interior linebacker Saturday in a 23-16 win over Vanderbilt and former Big Ten starter answered the call.
“I’m proud of him,” Malzahn said. “He’s a grad transfer and hasn’t got to play a lot. He just kept working, he’s had a good attitude and he got his opportunity. We were just about out of linebackers. He did a super job.”
Auburn was down one linebacker going into the game with the coaching staff holding Williams out of the lineup. Williams, who suffered a left leg injury against Ole Miss last week, dressed for the game sporting a heavily taped left ankle.
The Tigers linebacking depth became a dire situation when Deshaun Davis was ejected for targeting midway through the first quarter.
Neal jumped into the rotation alongside Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson turning heads in the process.
“T.J. Neal stepped up big time,” Auburn safety Tray Matthews said. “I was like man I haven’t seen that. He’s like yeah you haven’t seen me out here playing. All our backers stepped up. It just shows the kind of depth we have.”
Neal’s nine tackles Saturday were two shy of his total through eight games. He also played a part in multiple stops behind the line of scrimmage.
It was the kind of performance Auburn expected when it signed the experienced linebacker in the spring.
“We didn’t just get a guy,” linebackers coach Travis Williams said in June. “We got a guy that’s a two-year starter. We aren’t just bringing a guy into the program. We are excited about him being part of our program and helping us take this thing to another level.”
Neal came to Auburn with 245 career tackles and All-Big Ten honorable mention honors under his belt.
“I think it was a great opportunity to come here and compete for some playing time, playing in this big-time conference,” Neal said. “I think it was the right fit.”
It took nearly two months, but on Saturday it turned out to be true.