Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck heard what he wanted to hear Monday: Good news on Kamal Martin’s injury.
The senior linebacker left Saturday’s game at Rutgers in the third quarter, his right knee buckling just before contact on a play. With Martin hobbling off the field needing assistance and eventually carting to the locker room, the Gophers feared losing their best defensive player for the rest of the season — a season with the team sitting at 7-0 and in first place in the Big Ten West.
But with the Gophers set to play host to Maryland on Saturday, Fleck said Martin is a game-time decision, even though the Burnsville High School product still has some more tests to undergo on his lower leg injury, which Fleck declined to specify.
“We’ll see what happens,” Fleck said. “It depends on how he progresses. I don’t take not practicing lightly, but if there is one guy who can be locked in at practice, taking [mental] reps … even if he doesn’t practice every day and still has a shot to play, it’s him.”
The No. 17 Gophers also could take the cautious route, with a bye week after the Maryland game — followed by a grueling November. The Gophers face their first ranked opponent in No. 6 Penn State at home, then travel to No. 20 Iowa, where they haven’t won since 1999. They have a small respite with a trip to 1-5 Northwestern and finish the regular season at TCF Bank Stadium vs. 13th-ranked Wisconsin.
Having Martin for that stretch run would be huge. He already sat out the Georgia Southern game because of a minor foot sprain, the last nonconference game leading into a bye week ahead of Big Ten play, so the Gophers could follow that template with this injury.
How the Gophers would fill in for Martin, at least, is a familiar — albeit not easy — task. Martin also missed the season opener against South Dakota State, serving the final leg of a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules that began in last year’s Quick Lane Bowl.
Cam Mellor, a senior college football analyst with Pro Football Focus, said the two games Martin missed this season are two of the lowest-graded games defense-wise for the Gophers all year, with the opener vs. South Dakota State “by far” the worst in terms of overall defense and run defense.
Mellor said missing a player like Martin has an effect on the team’s performance.
“There’s a clear discernible difference,” Mellor said.
Young linebackers Thomas Rush (three tackles), Mariano Sori-Marin (16) and Braelen Oliver (12) are all possible fill-ins, but they don’t quite equate to Martin’s team-high 46 tackles, an especially impressive total considering he has missed nine quarters of football this fall. Martin also had a game with two forced fumbles and another with two interceptions.
The Gophers defense has been very good the past three games, giving up only fourth-quarter touchdowns against Rutgers and Nebraska and only a field goal against Illinois. Fleck attributed that to maturity and everyone keying in on particular jobs instead of trying to do it all.
While they aren’t like-for-like substitutes, players such as rush end Carter Coughlin and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. can help tighten any slack Martin’s possible absence leaves. Winfield is a dynamic player who can also shift momentum in a game, his two interceptions Saturday — one returned for a 33-yard touchdown — as one example. Coughlin started the year slow coming off a nagging training camp injury, but he has been a strong presence on the defense recently.
“He’s taken his game to a different level,” Fleck said. “The results or the stats or the data won’t say that. But he’s having his best season, I think, the way he’s playing.”
They’re no Martin, but Fleck doesn’t think anyone has to be.
“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. “… You don’t have to be anybody else but [yourselves], just be the best version of ourselves.”
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org