With Kamal Martin in the fold, Minnesota’s defense is thriving

Martin was honored as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after his performance against Nebraska.

Linebackers Jonathan Celestin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber run into formation on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers defeated Illinois 24-17 during the homecoming game.

Ellen Schmidt

Linebackers Jonathan Celestin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber run into formation on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers defeated Illinois 24-17 during the homecoming game.

John Miller

Injuries and a suspension knocked Kamal Martin out of last year’s bowl game and trickled over through this year’s season opener against South Dakota State. However, when the senior linebacker has been on the field, the Minnesota defense looks like a different unit. 

“Having him out there is a big help,” senior linebacker Thomas Barber said. “You see him, he’s a freak of nature and just what he does on the field is fantastic.”

Last week against Nebraska, Martin finished with 15 total tackles, which led the Gophers defense and helped them hold the Cornhuskers offense to seven points. With that performance, Martin was awarded the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. He is the first Minnesota player to receive the award since Antoine Winfield Jr. last September. Like most of head coach P.J. Fleck’s players, Martin was selfless when talking about what winning the award meant to him. 

“That goes back to all my teammates,” Martin said. “All my teammates work hard, and they push me every single day, and they’re going continue to do that. As long as I feed off them and they feed off me, then hopefully more of my teammates could win awards as well.”

With the suspension in the first game, and being out the third game, the Gophers struggled when Martin wasn’t out there. In the last three games, he’s made 28 tackles, intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles. In the last two games, the defense has only allowed 10 points. 

“We still have a long way to go,” Martin said. “We still have to get better. Be better in preparation and watch more film. We’ve been practicing a lot harder, and it’s been paying off.”

Through four games played so far this season, Martin has already set career-highs and is close to setting some more. After finishing with 59 tackles last season, Martin already has 41 so far this season. His two interceptions against Purdue at the end of September were as many as he had in his three previous years combined. His success is not surprising to anyone. 

“Just knowing Kamal, I just knew he was going to bounce back,” Barber said. “It’s showing now on the field. He worked his butt of this offseason.”

The Burnsville, Minnesota native hasn’t been playing the linebacker position for long. At Burnsville High School, Martin played both quarterback and safety, where he was a finalist for Mr. Football Minnesota and was First Team All-State, before he transitioned to linebacker as a freshman with the Gophers. 

“As you play more, you get a lot more experience, and you see a lot of things more clearly,” Martin said. “As long as you’re able to do that as an older more veteran player and pass that onto the younger guys, then your defense is going to get better.”

After receiving the suspension, Martin worked his way back into the good graces of his coaches and teammates with his hard work ethic.

“He did everything in the offseason to earn that trust back from the team, and now he’s out here playing the best I’ve seen a Will [linebacker] play,” Barber said. 

Martin’s success this season has been due to the encouragement of his teammates, but one teammate in particular has been there for Martin since the beginning: star linebacker Carter Coughlin. 

“I don’t see him as a friend I see him as a brother,” Martin said about his relationship with Coughlin, who is also his roommate. “Having somebody like that on your side, someone you can feed off and they can feed off you, it’s definitely special.”