7 days to Camp Rantoul
Counting down the 50 most important Illini.
No. 7: T.J. Neal, LB
Why he’s important: The redshirt sophomore came out of spring practice listed as the starting middle linebacker. If he emerges and keeps hold of the spot the whole reasons, it’s an indication the Pennsylvania native is progressing like the Illinois coaches want him to. Smart for Illinois to use a redshirt season on him during the 2012 season, even with other true freshmen like Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina playing that fall. It has allowed Neal to develop at a rate where he can slowly work himself into the lineup and a significant role on defense. The time is now for Neal to see if he can carry over what was a solid spring practice into strides this fall. He played in all 12 games last season, recording 38 tackles, including one tackle for a loss and one quarterback hurry. Neal was impressive at times in taking on running backs in open space, a trait not all Illinois linebackers shared last season. On a defense desperately looking for a spark and a possible playmaker, Neal could rise up and fit those two categories.
Fast fact: He was the only defensive player to return a kickoff last season for Illinois. Fielding a short opening kickoff against Michigan State on Oct. 26, Neal showed off some of the fullback skills he acquired at McKeeseport High School while rumbling 17 yards.
Last year’s ranking: No. 40
Tomorrow: No. 6
No. 8: Ted Karras