Updated: Linebacker Neal leaving Illini
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois starting linebacker T.J. Neal will skip his final year of eligibility and transfer to another school, coach Bill Cubit said Tuesday morning.
“He’s graduating, and he was talking about playing closer to home,” Cubit said. “That’s what he’s going to do. He’s a good kid, and I respect his feelings about what he wants to do. I wish him all the luck.”
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Neal, a 6-foot-1, 235-pounder, came to Illinois in 2012 after a standout career at McKeesport (Pa.) High School. He redshirted his first season, then played in all 12 games in 2013, making 38 tackles. In 2014, he had 98 tackles to rank 18th in the Big Ten.
As a junior, Neal finished second on the team in tackles with 109 and fifth in the Big Ten.
Only Clayton Fejedelem (140) had more tackles among the Illini, with Neal’s 14 tackles for loss ranking second on the team.
Had he decided to stay at Illinois, Neal would have had an important role with the team. After all, he started every game for the Illini the last two seasons at middle linebacker and leaves Illinois with 245 career tackles.
“He’s a good football player,” Cubit said. “Family is first. I understand.”
Neal, who has a 4-month-old daughter, posted a brief statement on his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon announcing his transfer.
“It has been a blessing to call the University of Illinois my home for the last year (four) years,” Neal wrote. “Thank you to Coach Tim Beckman and the Illinois football program for allowing me to be a part of this prestigious football program. I met a lot of great people and men that will be a part of my life forever. But I have made the decision to continue and finish my college football career elsewhere. I will be transferring to play my (fifth) year of eligibility at another university. This was not an easy decision, but it is God’s plan for me.”
Cubit said he likes the rule that allows graduating players the opportunity to transfer without sitting out a year.
“I think it’s good, Cubit said.
Neal talked to the coaches about transferring “in the last three or four days.”
Cubit said he doesn’t know where Neal will play in 2016.
“I told him I’d help him,” Cubit said. “It’s a player decision, and we’ll move on.”
With Neal leaving, the Illini will be without six of their top seven tacklers from 2015. Safety Taylor Barton is the lone returnee. With Mason Monheim having graduated and Neal transferring, James Crawford is the only starter coming back in 2016, with depth an issue at the position after B.J. Bello and LaKeith Walls both announced they would transfer in the last week. Tre Watson, Mike Svetina and Austin Roberts are returnees who could vie for a starting spot in 2016 with Neal’s departure.
Also on Tuesday, receiver Marchie Murdock wrote on Twitter that he is leaving the Illinois program because of his mom’s health concerns. Murdock was sixth on the team with 20 catches for 194 yards last season. Three of the top five receivers return, and the Illini welcome back 2014 leader Mikey Dudek. Murdock, a redshirt sophomore last season, is a native of Arlington, Texas, and said he would get his degree at Illinois and then become a graduate transfer.
“Unfortunately my mother is sick and it would kill me if I couldn’t be able to see her if something bad happened,” Murdock wrote. “This was the main reason in my decision. With countless praying and talking with my family, I feel this is the right thing to do.”
Running back Henry Enyenihi also plans to transfer. The junior college product, who was part of the 2015 class, ran 20 times for 60 yards in a backup role last season.