Kamal Martin was part of a football turnaround story before he became a Gopher, so he can’t help but see parallels.
He is a junior linebacker now for a program that hasn’t won a share of the Big Ten title since 1967 and a team that slipped from 9-4 to 5-7 in his second season.
But Martin has seen a program rise up against long odds before. Entering his senior season at Burnsville High School, the Blaze hadn’t been to the state playoffs in two decades and was 9-18 over the previous three-year span.
Then in 2015, with Martin at quarterback and safety, rarely leaving the field, Burnsville finished 9-2 after a loss to Maple Grove in the state quarterfinals.
“Coach [Tyler] Krebs came in with a vision of changing that [Burnsville] program around; his motto is to build champions,” Martin said. “I could see [Gophers coach P.J.] Fleck doing that exact same thing. For me, it’s dang near identical.”
If a Gophers turnaround happens over the next two seasons, Martin figures to be a key part of it. He emerged as a defensive fixture last season, with 42 tackles, including 6½ for a loss, two forced fumbles and an interception.
Not a bad sophomore season for a player who had no other major conference scholarship offers. Martin was committed to play quarterback for Eastern Michigan before a breakout defensive performance at a Gophers camp following his junior year of high school.
Former Gophers coach Tracy Claeys offered a scholarship that day. Martin accepted on the spot.
“Talking to the Gopher coaches, he was the best guy there [at camp] that day, running around and being physical,” Krebs said. “That was kind of the springboard for him.”
Martin had shown promise for Burnsville. But Krebs sat him down for some serious talks before that fateful summer between his junior and senior year.
“He was struggling a little bit in school,” Krebs said. “We talked about how there’s kind of two paths you can go down. You either can continue not to do well in school and maybe go a junior college route, or you can flip the switch.
“He did some summer school classes, got his grades right, and then just kind of took off from there.”
Martin also added 10 pounds of muscle that summer, taking his training regimen to a new level.
He said the conversations with Krebs were a turning point with “school, becoming a better leader, just the whole, entire ordeal. Having him for a mentor, as a coach, it really made it clear to me that that’s someone I wanted to model myself after.”
That summer, Martin also started getting to know Carter Coughlin and some of the other recruits who soon would be joining him the Gophers. Now he and Coughlin are Dinkytown roommates, along with Thomas Barber and Antoine Winfield Jr. — four of the Gophers defensive cornerstones.
“We have a roommate thing where we hold each other accountable for all our actions, whether it’s homework, Bible study, practice, everything,” Martin said. “So if you’re in our room, you can’t slip up.”
The 6-3, 235-pound Martin has taken a crash course at linebacker the past two seasons, still a former quarterback learning defensive nuances. Primarily an outside linebacker, he got a chance to play inside when Barber got injured during spring practice.
“[Martin’s] a completely different player this year,” Fleck said. “We’ve taught him multiple positions, and he’s been able to master two different positions. Last year, I think his head was spinning a little bit, like most of our football team, and Kamal is playing so much faster.”
It’s easy to spot Martin at practice, sprinting all over the field, bouncing with energy between plays and yelling instructions, especially for the younger linebackers.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Coughlin said. “I think he’s going to have a really, really big year.”