Gophers senior linebacker Kamal Martin has avoided serious injury and could return as early as Saturday, head coach P.J. Fleck said Monday.
“Good news,” Fleck said. “Very good news.”
That’s not how it appeared when Minnesota’s leading tackler injured his right leg in the third quarter of Minnesota’s 42-7 win over Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J. on Saturday. The Burnsville native spent more than 13 minutes in the sideline injury tent, was carted to the locker room and next appeared leaving SHI Stadium on crutches.
But the Gophers’ defensive MVP for the first half of the season, whose NFL draft stock continues to rise, told Fleck that he felt good when getting off the team bus.
Fleck declined to share details or the location of Martin’s injury. He will have further tests done, the coach said, but could be a “game-time decision” when 17th-ranked Gophers (7-0, 4-0) play Maryland (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We’ll see what happens. It depends on how he progresses,” Fleck said. “I don’t take not practicing lightly, but if there is one guy who can be locked in at practice taking (mental) reps, and even if he doesn’t practice every day and still has a shot to play, it’s him.”
Minnesota could opt to rest Martin or have him rehab longer. The Gophers have bye week Nov. 2 before hosting No. 6 Penn State in Minneapolis on Nov. 9.
Martin plays weak-side linebacker, a spot with a lot of responsibilities in Minnesota’s defense. He moved there after Blake Cashman graduated and was drafted by the New York Jets.
Martin has a team-high 45 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
“We told our team that Kamal is a very important part of our defense. He’s one player out of 11. It takes 11 to be really good,” Fleck said. “… Whoever spells Kamal, comes in for Kamal, doesn’t ever have to be Kamal. They just have to be the best version of themselves.”
Fleck said Martin is routinely the Gophers’ hardest-working player based on its GPS/analytics system readouts from practices and workouts. He said Martin, a converted high school quarterback, started to blossom in his new position midway through last season.
The Gophers played without Martin in two full games earlier this season, because of a suspension in the season opener against South Dakota State and a foot injury in the Georgia Southern game. Sophomore Mariano Sori-Marin and redshirt freshman Braelen Oliver have filled in at inconsistent levels compared to Martin’s high bar.
Oliver has 12 tackles, 1½ for lost yards, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery in seven games this season. Sori-Marin has 16 tackles and a half-tackle for loss in seven games.