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Auburn adds linebacker depth by landing Illinois grad transfer T.J. Neal

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

TJ Neal pressures Purdue’s quarterback in a 48-14 win. (Mark Jones | Illinois Athletics)
TJ Neal pressures Purdue’s quarterback in a 48-14 win. (Mark Jones | Illinois Athletics)

Coach Gus Malzahn wasn’t as happy with his team’s depth at linebacker as he indicated on national signing day.

Auburn added Illinois graduate transfer T.J. Neal less than two weeks after Malzahn introduced one linebacker as part of the Tigers' 2016 recruiting class.

Neal announced his decision to sign with Auburn on Twitter Tuesday morning.

“It has been a honor to be given a chance to play college football,” Neal tweeted. “For my senior year, I chose to sign with the University of Auburn. I want to thank the coaching staff at the University of Auburn for giving me this opportunity.”

Auburn took a hit at the position with starters Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Justin Garrett graduating. The Tigers only signee at the position was Spanish Fort’s Tre Threat, one of the team’s nine early enrollees.

“We’ve got some young linebackers we feel good about already,” Malzahn said. “Tré Threat we think will fit in, too. We feel good about the young guys we redshirted or played on special teams.”

The opportunity to land a linebacker with a proven resume in Neal must have changed Malzahn's mind.

Neal, a Pennsylvania native who was a 3-star recruit out of McKeeseport High School, was a consistent source of production for Illinois the last two years as a starter.

As a junior, he had 98 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, with one interception and one forced fumble. He ranked 18th in the Big Ten with 7.8 tackles per game.

Neal improved on the numbers as a senior with a team-leading 109 tackles, 14 for a loss and a pair of sacks.

He registered more than 10 tackles in four games including a season-high 17 in his team’s season-finale against Northwestern He finished eighth in the Big Ten in tackles and tied for 10th in the conference in tackles for losses.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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