The record is within his sights. An average year for Carlton Martial and, according to the record books, he becomes the all-time leader in tackles in the top level of NCAA college football.
On the surface, that's some big-time motivation to take a COVID-19 waiver from the NCAA to come back for one more season.
The truth is, though, that wasn't his motivation for coming back to Troy. The real reason is an example of why he's successful as a football player. He came back because he didn't think he'd done enough to help his team win.
"I get this question a lot. People think it's for the record," Martial said when asked why he returned. "That's an amazing accomplishment, but it really wasn't for that. It's more of, these past few years, I felt like, as a leader, I kind of let the team down. I kind of put it on my shoulders because we needed that special leader to say enough is enough. You need that vocal leader, and I was more of a lead-by-example guy. I have to grow as a player and a man to be a better leader. Our guys push me to be the best I can."
Any surprise that he carries that attitude probably comes because of unfamiliarity with Martial's football journey. He was a tackling machine at a very good high school program. As a junior at McGill-Toolen High, he had 197 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 11 sacks for a team that won the 2017 Class 7A title with a win over Spain Park. The following year, he had 120 tackles with 15 tackles for loss and six sacks for a team that lost to Hoover in the Class 7A championship game. In the two seasons combined, McGill-Toolen was 26-2.
That type of resume often creates college recruiting attention. That wasn't the case for Martial, who was 5-foot-8 and 205 pounds at the time. He received no stars from the recruiting sites, and the coaches didn't call. He walked on at Troy and went to work while redshirting as a true freshman.
The rest almost sounds like unbelievable fiction. He received a scholarship before his redshirt freshman began, and he finished as a Freshman All-American with 76 tackles. As a sophomore, he had 126 tackles, which was the most by a Troy player since 2000. As a junior, he had a national-best 113 tackles and was a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, which honors a college football player who began as a walk-on. Last season, he had a career-best 127 tackles and was a Burlsworth Finalist again.
Get out that calculator – you'll need it to count all his tackles – and you get 442 career tackles. The NCAA leader in career tackles, at least for now, is Northwestern's Tim McGaricle, who had 545 tackles between 2002 and 2005. He needs 104 tackles to climb to the top of the charts. He begins that quest on Saturday at 3 p.m. when the Trojans play Ole Miss and its high-octane offense.
Taylor Polk, a former Ole Miss linebacker, is Martial's position coach. He knows a little about making tackles after being credited with 35 tackles in a Mississippi state championship game as a high school senior. He's always seen some special linebackers in his time.
Where does Martial fit in his list of top inside linebackers?
"He makes my job a lot easier. I know that," Polk said. "He makes me look like I'm a halfway decent coach. He's extremely talented. He's one of the most natural linebackers I've ever been around. I'm talking about watching guys play on TV, coaching them, playing with guys who were really talented. He has a unique ability to find the football and get the guy on the ground. That helps us out a lot. Really, just cut him loose, don't bog him down, and watch him makes some plays."
That brings us back to his reason for returning to Troy. Through fall camp and heading into the season opener at Ole Miss, has he grown more into a vocal leadership role?
"It really hasn't been hard," Martial said. "I'm kind of an outgoing character. [It is] just knowing being a leader within yourself, you still have to lead others. Being an effective leader, you have to affect others with how you move – your words, how you walk into a room, things like that, simple things I had to realize."
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