CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — T.J. Neal’s first day of Auburn workouts will likely be spent in the background.
He’s not at Auburn to immediately make a big splash this summer or show he has any preconceived notions of what life will be like with his new teammates.
Yes, many expect him to be a starter at middle linebacker for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, but Neal is not here to act like the spot is his to lose.
“My intentions when I get there are I want to work hard, be in top shape,” Neal told SEC Country. “I’m going to go down there and establish respect of teammates. I want to earn their respect as far as running, lifting weights, any type of team competition or whatever we’re doing, I want to establish that I’m not just a guy coming down here looking to get a handout.”
Neal arrived at Auburn early Monday after grabbing his bachelor’s degree at Illinois on Saturday. The 10-hour drive was the first step on his journey for notoriety in college football. He believes he was overlooked at Illinois, where a nine-loss season during his junior year didn’t attract many eyes to his performances.
Neal finished with 109 tackles for the Illini in 2015, ranking eighth in the Big Ten. He racked up 207 tackles during his final two seasons at Illinois.
“I feel like I’m a very athletic guy. I run well,” Neal said. “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 is also crafty. He became fast friends with Auburn safety Tray Matthews during the spring and got to watch some practice footage thanks to his new buddy on the Plains. While he was finishing an internship at Illinois, Neal was already scheming about his future at Auburn while obsessing over practice footage.
“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.”
Neal will spend the summer attempting to earn his teammates’ respect. He’ll attend every voluntary workout, he said, in an effort to get himself noticed in the locker room and prepared for life in the SEC.
“Then when we put the pads on, I want everybody to know I’m going down here to work and I want to win,” Neal said. “I want nothing handed to me. i want to earn it, play ball and help the program and do some things they’ve done in the past. That’s my expectation: go down and have fun and play my last year to the fullest, meet new friends and connect with new people.”
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