When P.J. Fleck and his coaching staff first saw Kamal Martin play in spring football after taking over the Gophers in 2017, the coaches' reaction was pretty succinct.
For all of the then- sophomore's size and athleticism, it was abundantly evident he was a high school quarterback still learning the linebacker position. From recognizing pulling linemen to tracking tight ends, Martin couldn't stay on top of any of it.
"It all confused him," Fleck recalled. "It would be like a painter throwing just a bunch of paint on a canvas and saying that's a work of art."
The senior's play now, though, is Picasso-esque — a clear picture and uniquely Martin. He is coming off a career-high 15 tackles against Nebraska and is only 18 away from his highest season total, as the No. 20 Gophers head to Rutgers on Saturday.
His team-high 41 tackles this season are even more impressive considering he has missed two of the Gophers' six games: The opener vs. South Dakota State because of a suspension and the third game vs. Georgia Southern because of a foot injury.
The suspension was a continuation from sitting out the Quick Lane Bowl last season for violating team rules. Fleck said Martin handled the situation "perfectly" in terms of taking responsibility for his actions.
"Be better today than you were yesterday," Martin said of the lessons he took from that experience. "Just take the support and learn from the guys around you."
Fellow linebacker Thomas Barber, also one of Martin's roommates, said he knew Martin would bounce back because he watched his teammate "work his butt off" to prove to himself and everyone else that his NFL stock wasn't on the decline.
"I knew where his heart was. He knew we already had his back," Barber said. "… He did everything in the offseason to earn that trust back from the team. And now he's already playing the best I've seen a [weakside linebacker] play."
Fleck actually has tangible proof that Martin is the hardest worker on his team. On the team's Catapult GPS system that measures aspects such as work output and top-end speed in practice and games, Martin is always No. 1.
Barber went as far as calling Martin a "freak of nature" who makes his presence known when on the field. He already has had one game where he forced two fumbles and one where he made two interceptions. At 6-3 and 245 pounds, the Burnsville native has caught NFL scouts' attention and could follow in former teammate Blake Cashman's footsteps as the next drafted Gophers linebacker.
Cam Mellor, a senior college football analyst with Pro Football Focus, projected Martin being a second-day pick, possibly going in the second or third round. He said Martin's run defense and efficiency stand out. For example, he has only blitzed 14 times, but he is winning half of those battles, beating the opposing player trying to stop him. Ohio State defensive end Chase Young is one of the best pass rushers in college football, and he is at 37%, albeit it on more than 100 attempts.
Right now, Martin is the 13th highest-rated linebacker in the Big Ten, missing out on cracking the top 10 because of eight missed tackles, according to Mellor.
Martin, who earned Big Ten defensive player of the week honors Monday, is reluctant to talk about his abilities, attributing his success to general experience, coaching and, most often, his teammates. They are also who rallied around him after his suspension.
"To have a bond like that and the sense of trust like that goes a long way," Martin said, adding playing with roommates Barber, Antoine Winfield Jr., Clay Geary and Carter Coughlin feels like backyard football because it's so fun. Martin actually calls Coughlin his "brother," someone who has been on his side the past four years.
Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has also helped Martin flourish into a dominant linebacker, which Fleck felt happened about halfway through last season when Rossi assumed his current job. Rossi simplified the position for Martin, and this season, the skills and instincts Martin have honed are on full display in the most active role on the Gophers' defense.
"He's got safety-type skills at linebacker," Fleck said. "… He can run. He can catch. He's agile, and he can cover. He can tackle in space. He'll stone you in the box. I mean, he'll bite you. One-on-one, facemask-to-facemask, and he'll sweep the ankle somehow, some way and open space as the last resort."
But Fleck's first impression of Martin hasn't faded. Just now, it's what opposing coaches and players are thinking when they see Martin lining up across from them: