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Auburn ‘didn’t just get a guy’ in new arrival at linebacker T.J. Neal

Former Illinois linebacker T.J. Neal, No. 52, arrived on campus at Auburn in late May as a graduate transfer.
Former Illinois linebacker T.J. Neal, No. 52, arrived on campus at Auburn in late May as a graduate transfer. Illinois Athletics

Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams had a colorful way of describing his expectations for the newest player in his position group T.J. Neal. The Illinois grad transfer arrived on campus in late May hoping to compete for playing time in the fall.

“I’m not asking any of my guys to go build a rocket, just run to the ball, make tackles and be coachable,” Williams said.

Neal’s arrival couldn’t come at a better time for Auburn with the defense looking to replace starting linebackers Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Justin Garrett.

The Tigers welcomed the majority of its 2016 signing class on campus last week, but none of the new arrivals play linebacker. Tre Threat, who was one of the program’s nine early enrollees, was the only linebacker the team signed this year.

Neal filled an important need for Auburn, but the Tigers weren’t acting out of desperation turning to the graduate transfer market. Williams, who helped evaluate Neal, views the linebacker as a potential impact player.

“We didn’t just get a guy,” Williams said. “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.”

Williams ran through a list of qualities — experience, flexibility, good short area quickness and leadership qualities — Neal brings to the table and will help the linebacker make up ground on his new teammates that have 15 spring practices under their belt.

“He played a lot of ball the last place he was at,” Williams said. “He’s been working really hard while he’s been here for two weeks. It’s just accepting the culture of what we have in the linebacker room and he’s doing that.”

Neal could be an important piece for Auburn if the defense wants to operate out of a 3-4 defense.

New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has shied away from discussing what base formation his group will rely on, but wants to the option to run multiple defensive fronts.

“You’ve got to be able to mix it up,” Steele said at the time. “If you watch the New England Patriots play, they’ll tell you they’re a 3-4 team, but then they line up in a 4-3 a good bit. So it’s not so much where we start with it. The personnel will have a lot to do with that. But we will do both things.”

Auburn’s depth chart at linebacker is wide open after expected starter Tre Williams. Darrell Williams, DeShaun Davis, Richard McBryde and Montavious Atkinson are all in the mix with Neal for snaps.