Editor’s Note: It’s a crucial year in Auburn. Gus Malzahn enters his fourth season in a bit of a rut, but he has proven he can quickly change the trajectory of the program when his team’s back is against the wall.
Auburn needs to find a quarterback, develop receivers and lean on a defense many expect to be much improved under coordinator Kevin Steele. Will all of the pieces come together in time for a successful season?
SEC Country takes a look at the 25 Most Important Tigers (and others) who will determine whether Auburn’s season is a success or failure.
15. T.J. Neal, linebacker
The transfer (other than John Franklin III) expected to contribute heavily this season at Auburn is T.J. Neal. The graduate from Illinois had 109 tackles in 2015, ranking eighth in the Big Ten. He racked up 207 tackles during his final two seasons at Illinois, where he felt he was overlooked because of dismal team performances.
He’ll be counted on to contribute immediately, if not start, at Auburn, where he arrived in May looking to gain his new teammates’ trust while also moving his small family (girlfriend and child) to the Plains.
“I feel like I’m a very athletic guy. I run well,” Neal told SEC Country at the time. “I’m very instinctive and my biggest attribute as a football player is my knowledge of the game. I’m very disciplined and I believe in my footwork and certain things like that. As I watch film of myself, I critique myself really well: certain things on how I want to step, take on blocks and do certain things, I pay attention to all the small things.”
Neal certainly feels he will be ready to take over a starting spot left vacant by three former starters. Tre’ Williams returns but outside of that, all spots appear to be open among the linebackers. He also expects a breakout season in his final year because of the talent that will be around him on the field.
“It’s going to be like heaven, a kid in the candy store with some of the top guys and prospects: Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and the second and third string is pretty good,” Neal said. “It’s scary. My time here at Illinois, we never had depth like that with defensive linemen.”
Coming Tuesday: The defensive leader
- No. 25 — Josh Holsey, cornerback/safety
- No. 24 — Leonard Fournette, LSU running back
- No. 23 — Rudy Ford, safety
- No. 22 — Chandler Cox, H-Back
- No. 21 — Paul James III, defensive end
- No. 20 — Kamryn Pettway, H-Back
- No. 19 — Kirby Smart, Georgia coach
- No. 18 — Austin Golson, offensive tackle
- No. 17 — Marlon Davidson, defensive end
- No. 16 — Carlton Davis, cornerback