Troy linebacker Carlton Martial has piled up plenty of accolades in his six-year college career.
Martial has been a Freshman All-American and a three-time first-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection. He’s the all-time leading tackler in Sun Belt history, and is on pace to break the FBS record in that category later this season.
And he’s unbeaten vs. his hometown team.
Martial and the Trojans (5-2, 3-1 Sun Belt) put a four-year winning streak vs. the Jaguars (5-1, 2-0) on the line Thursday night in the annual “Battle for the Belt” at Hancock Whitney Stadium. With both teams now in the Sun Belt West Division and both one win away from bowl-eligibility, this year’s game has higher stakes than perhaps it ever has.
“It’s not just because it’s South, and it’s not just because it could make us bowl-eligible with a win, but it’s the next game and it’s the biggest one,” Martial said. “It could be anyone on our schedule. It’s South and it’s a big rivalry and it could be our sixth win, but we’re not really looking at that. We’re not looking at just to get six wins. We’re looking for far greater accomplishments.”
As he has virtually his entire career, the 5-foot-9, 210-pound Martial leads the Trojans and is at or near the top of the Sun Belt Conference leaderboard in tackles this season. He has 63 stops this year, despite missing one game and half of another with a hamstring injury.
Martial became the Sun Belt’s all-time leading tackler on Sept. 24 vs. Marshall, and now sits at 505 for his career — 40 behind former Northwestern linebacker Tim McGarigle, who set the FBS record with 545 tackles from 2002-05. Forty-three of those tackles have come against South Alabama, including 14 each of the last two years.
“Carlton may be the most instinctive, natural linebacker I’ve ever coached,” Troy head coach Jon Sumrall said. “And I’ve coached and been around some good ones, a couple who went in the first round of the NFL draft. He’s very instinctive, does everything the right way. He is a very passionate kid about what he does. He’s a great teammate. It’s not all about him. He’s for to the team.”
Martial’s journey from undersized but productive playmaker at Mobile’s McGill-Toolen Catholic School to all-conference linebacker at Troy has been well-chronicled. A two-time AL.com Coastal Alabama Defensive MVP selection, he appeared intent on following older brother Philbert to then-Division II North Alabama before Sumrall — then Troy’s linebackers coach under Neal Brown — swooped in and offered him a preferred walk-on slot with the Trojans.
Sumrall left to become linebackers coach at Ole Miss before getting a chance to coach Martial, at least until he returned as head coach this past January after several years as an assistant at Kentucky. Martial did not see any game action for the Trojans as a true freshman in 2017, but impressed Brown’s staff enough that he earned a scholarship heading into his redshirt freshman year.
He hasn’t stopped making plays since.
“When I recruited him, I thought he had a chance to become a really good player,” Sumrall said. “Now I’m not going to lie — I didn’t know that he was going to do everything he’s done. He’s exceeded maybe anyone’s expectations except for his own, because I think he’s always known that this was his plan. But I couldn’t ask for a better young man. He means the world to our program. He’s really what Troy football is about.”
One school that ignored Martial altogether was South Alabama, which didn’t even bring him on campus for an official visit. The Jaguars signed Murphy linebacker Kendric Haynes in that class, but Haynes — a three-star recruit — left school after one semester without playing in a game and later transferred to North Alabama.
South Alabama’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at the time was Kane Wommack, now the Jaguars’ head coach. He said he passed on Martial and also diminutive teammate Eric Garror — now a standout cornerback and punt-returner at Louisiana — for one reason: size, specifically a lack thereof.
“Eric or Carlton, based off their size, shouldn’t play at this level,” Wommack said. “But they’re just great football players and do a great job in their respective areas. So I think when you look at that, you don’t ever want the exception to take the exception to the rule and start making that the new rule. Because for every Carlton Martial out there, there are probably 10 others that would be ‘misses’ at this level. That’s what makes Carlton so special. He is a player that is the exception to the rule. And he plays like the exception to the rule.”
When told Wommack expressed regret about not offering him a scholarship, Martial responded “I appreciate that. But it’s all ‘Go Trojans’ now.”
Kickoff in the “Battle for the Belt” is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Hancock Whitney Stadium. The game will be televised live by ESPNU.