The 90 Illini #64: TJ Neal June 29, 2012
6′-1″, 230 lbs.
True Freshman (on scholarship, 5 years to play 4)
McKeeseport HS / McKeeseport, Pennsylvania
ALE Ranking last year: NR
What I Know About Him:
A case could be made for TJ Neal to be the best recruit in last year’s class. Although he wasn’t a 4-star in any of the rankings, he did have offers from Nebraska, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, and USC. And he picked Illinois. Yay.
It will be interesting to see if Neal settles at the Mike or the Will linebacker spot. Watching him on film, he looks like a prototypical middle linebacker to me, but he might have the speed and versatility to play the Will. I’m guessing he’ll get slotted at one of those two spots by the end of this season, working towards starting in a few years.
What I Expect From Him:
With starters seemingly entrenched at Mike (#BadNewsBrown) and Will (#RBOBK), and with two sophomores backing them up who both played a little last year (Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper), and with Zeph Grimes working his way into the mix, ideally, Neal redshirts. Jonathan Brown plays two more years, Neal is on the scout team this year and is an understudy next year, and then Neal starts his journey towards becoming The Next Great Illini Middle Linebacker in 2014.
But it’s hard to keep a kid this talented (and this highly pursued in high school) off the field. Many times they turned down USC and Florida because they saw a chance to play early at Illinois, and many times, they do. So I could see Neal getting a special teams role this fall. Or, in the absolute best case scenario, pushing Houston Bates for playing time at WLB.
One more note. When I wrote that “My Rose Bowl Shirts Are Fading” post last month, someone tweeted me “2015 is the year – look at the schedule”. So I did, and I saw a Big Ten schedule that brought Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Northwestern all to Champaign with road trips to Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, and Penn State. Plus the two non-con games that have been determined are Western Illinois and Kent State. AND it will be Tim Beckman’s 4th year at the helm, which is usually the year you’ll take The Leap if you’re building the program correctly.
So since then, in my head, I’ve been compiling a list of players needed to win the Big Ten in 2015 (I know – moronic at this point, but LEAVE ME BE). Each time we land a recruit I deem Big Ten Title-worthy, I mentally add them to the 2015 Illini Big Ten Champions. Neal is one of those guys. In my mind’s eye, he’s the starting middle linebacker on the 2015 Illini Big Ten Championship Team. I’ll keep you updated.