Auburn Football: How Transfer LB T.J. Neal Will Impact the Tigers' 2016 Defense

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Auburn Football: How Transfer LB T.J. Neal Will Impact the Tigers' 2016 Defense
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Former Illinois LB T.J. Neal (center)

The most glaring weakness of what was otherwise a great 2016 recruiting class for Auburn was at linebacker—a position where the Tigers lost three players to graduation but only signed one.

But Auburn had a target in mind after national signing day that was more capable of making an instant impact than any high school recruit.

On Tuesday, Illinois linebacker T.J. Neal announced on Twitter he would transfer to Auburn for his senior year. As a graduate transfer, he'll be eligible to play immediately:

Neal's arrival couldn't come at a better time for the Tigers.

Three of Auburn's top four linebackers from the 2015 season—Cassanova McKinzy, Kris Frost and Justin Garrett—are all out of eligibility.

That leaves former 5-star recruit Tre' Williams, who is coming off a solid sophomore campaign, as the only Auburn linebacker who recorded more than 13 tackles a season ago.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Former Illinois LB T.J. Neal (above)

In steps Neal, who had 109 tackles for the Fighting Illini last season and 98 as a sophomore in 2014. His 109 tackles last season were second on the team and eighth in the Big Ten.

Auburn hasn't had a linebacker record that many tackles in a season since Daren Bates did it in 2011.

Neal developed a reputation as a sure tackler and a constant playmaker for Illinois, which narrowly missed a bowl game in 2015 despite head coach Tim Beckman's firing just one week before the season.

"Once you’re a starter, you’re happy just to be a starter, and then you’ve got to take it to the next level," Illinois head coach Bill Cubit said last October, per Matt Daniels of the News-Gazette. "Your expectations just keep on growing. He’s expecting more out of himself, and he’s having a fun time. He’s making more plays than he did last year."

Neal should also give the Auburn defense an extra boost in getting into the opponent's backfield.

As Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee noted Tuesday morning, Neal almost had as many tackles for loss for Illinois in 2015 as Auburn's starting linebacking corps did as a whole:

Neal made 25 consecutive starts over the last two seasons for an Illinois defense that went from 115th nationally in yards per play in 2013 to 23rd nationally in 2015.

When you add up his tackles, tackles for loss and experience for a solid Power Five defense, Neal is the type of player who can replace—and build on—the bulk of the production of Auburn's outgoing linebackers.

Auburn's Outgoing Linebackers vs. T.J. Neal in 2015
Name Tackles TFLs Sacks
Kris Frost 96 3.0 0.0
Cassanova McKinzy 74 10.0 5.0
Justin Garrett 50 2.5 1.0
AUBURN TOTALS 220 15.5 6.0
T.J. Neal 109 14.0 2.0

CFBStats.com

And make no mistake about Neal's plans for his year at Auburn. He told Brandon Marcello of AL.com he expects to play immediately at middle linebacker for the Tigers.

"I've got to come in and do my part, be in shape, make plays and do what I've been doing that made me so successful," Neal said, per Marcello. "I did my research and there's no one on that depth chart or roster who has the experience and credentials I have. They want me to be the quarterback of the defense."

Neal will provide the confident, experienced presence down the middle of the defense that Auburn missed at times in 2015 and would have definitely missed in 2016.

Last season, McKinzy split time at linebacker and rush defensive end to help the Tigers get more pressure in the wake of Carl Lawson's injury.

Now instead of youth and a lack of starts across the linebacker depth chart, Neal can be the cornerstone of a starting group potentially flanked by Williams and fellow former blue-chipper Jeff Holland, an exciting pass-rushing threat.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Former Illinois LB T.J. Neal

Auburn has been searching for consistency and high-level production from its linebackers since the start of the Gus Malzahn era.

While it will only be for a single season, Neal can provide both for the Tigers as they look to develop the likes of Williams, Holland, Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and 2016 early enrollee Tre Threat under new coordinator Kevin Steele.

Neal's presence will take some of the pressure off of a largely inexperienced linebacking corps and give Auburn the experienced playmaker it needs to build on the late-season defensive success of 2015.

And after all, the last transfer Auburn picked up from Illinois—former lead-blocking H-back Jay Prosch—turned out to be a breakout star for a program that pulled off the turnaround season of all turnaround seasons in 2013.

The Tigers may have found someone similar on the defensive ball heading into a make-or-break 2016 campaign.

All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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