Quick, without looking it up: who’s the all-time career leader in tackles at the FBS collegiate level?
It’s not Tim McGarigle, the former Northwestern standout linebacker who dominated to the tune of 545 total tackles. It isn’t Luke Kuechly, nor is it someone like James Laurinaitis, LaVar Arrington or Patrick Willis.
That honor belongs to Troy linebacker Carlton Martial, who finished his collegiate career with 578 total tackles in his 5 seasons spent with the Trojans.
Martial’s story is truly a remarkable one. Listed as a 5-foot-8, 208-pound linebacker coming out of high school, he did not have a single scholarship offer from an FBS school and joined Troy in 2017 as a preferred walk-on. After spending his first year in college as a redshirt, he broke into the starting lineup in 2018 and instantly made an impact.
He would finish his collegiate career with four straight seasons with at least 110 tackles, and he tallied 51 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks and 6 interceptions in his time at Troy. A four-time first-team All-Sun Belt defender, Martial concluded his collegiate career by breaking the FBS career tackling record and winning the 2022 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Now, Martial faces some more adversity as a smaller linebacker coming out of a Group of 5 school, but if his history is any indication, he should be able to come out on top and carve out a successful NFL career for himself. I had the chance to speak with Martial about breaking the record, being a Mobile, Alabama resident going to the Senior Bowl, his mindset going into each play, and more.
JI: Congratulations on becoming the FBS all-time leader in tackles. What does that mean to you, and when did you realize breaking the record was a possibility?
CM: Honestly, this year has been such a whirlwind. Our main focus was definitely the championship, but it’s nice, just looking back on it now, that I was able to accomplish something. But that wasn’t just me; I can give the credit to the defensive line, my coaches, the list goes on and on. Those guys are special to me, and I wouldn’t have made it or been in the position I am if it wasn’t because of them. As far as knowing, I really didn’t try to have the record as my end goal, as my, “that’s what I want, and them I’m done”. I really tried to focus on trying to get the win in the game more than getting the tackles, because you know how that goes.
JI: I wanna go through your approach pre-snap. What are some of the things you’re looking to identify before the snap, and then what about in those first few seconds of the play?
CM: Really, it’s reading my keys, reading the offensive line, offensive guards. Some guys may be sitting back in their stance, and you’ll be able to tell when they’re about to pass it, or when they’re pulling around, or when they might be light on his fingers. There’s some ways you could know before the play, just diagnose and definitely [identify] the space for receivers and routes, know if the back is wide, he’s most likely gonna wheel out. We can get a quick exchange of two and three or close, just little details like that. [Being] in the film room, that helps a lot. You know what’s coming before the play.
JI: You’re a Mobile guy, and you recently accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl. Can you tell me a bit about if you’ve had past experiences about the Senior Bowl growing up in the area?
CM: Oh, yes sir, of course. Definitely. Growing up in the area, the Senior Bowl was definitely the big game that all the kids want to go to. My father, he actually would get us hospitality wristbands, so we’d go through the little kid play area, getting food and things like that. Going with some of the guys I grew up with, like [Cowboys wide receiver] Jalen Tolbert, he’s one of my close friends I grew up with. We dreamt about playing in that game, and I’ve actually been to the game, I’m not sure how many times, BUT numbers of times over the over the years.
Just being around the game, I love the feel of it, just the entire week. I was never able to, growing up, go into the practices or anything like that because I was in school. But just seeing how Jalen did there, and even watching up before him, [former Troy quarterback] Brandon Silvers. Those guys, I definitely look up to them.
JI: Your stats and tape speak for themselves, but some may express concerns about your size as a linebacker at the next level. How have you overcome that at the collegiate level, and does that approach differ in any way as you’re going to the NFL?
CM: No, sir. That chip that you have to play with, that you have to play with on your shoulder, that’s something I carry to my everyday life. Everything’s a challenge. I won’t be able to change who I am, I won’t be able to change my size. All I want people to do is don’t choose from the eye test; think about what’s inside. It’s all about heart. I know a lot of people might say it might be a little cliche, but heart over height. That’s just how I feel about the situation, and my father always told me, “Why not? You just will never give up. Never stop trying to play the cards you’re dealt. Give all you can for this game, and you’ll be happy with the outcome.”
JI: That Cure Bowl win over UTSA earlier in the month was impressive. What’s the mindset like heading into a bowl game compared to a regular game?
CM: I tell the guys: this bowl week, it’s not for me. It’s for the younger guys who, they’ve never been to a bowl. The seniors, we came back, and one of the main reasons we came back was to get Troy back on the map back to where we belong. A lot of guys, they haven’t seen, what a winning season’s like. I think the last winning season we had was 2018 with the Dollar General [Bowl]. A lot of guys had a sour taste [after] those three years...getting the win was really just for those younger guys. Being all together, going to Orlando Resort like that, and Universal makes you want to act like a kid again. It brought the kid out of me, just having to bring everybody back. We did handle our business, and [had] a business trip with a little bit of vacation with those guys.
JI: Talking with you, you seem like a selfless guy and a team-first player. How do you think you’ve grown during your time at Troy, not just as a player, but as a teammate and as a person?
CM: The job’s never finished. You’re always developing, not even as a team leader, as a man. You’re always finding the ways to be better. I’ve been fortunate to run into some guys here, some of them [will be] lifelong friends that helped guide me on that way, especially some coaches, you know, I can name a few off my head. Definitely [Troy head coach Jon] Sumrall, [outside linebackers] Coach Bam Hardman, [inside linebackers] Coach Tayler Polk, Coach Andrew Warwick — he was my linebackers coach last year — not just learning from them and trying to really be a student of the game, just to better my game.
Even Coach Polk, he came in just this year, but I feel like he was the perfect coach for us, for me, [Troy linebacker] KJ Robertson, all the guys in the room. He was one of the coaches that will make you like hone in on the specific little details. It can be something as minute as just one step that could just definitely get you to the play faster. It was just little things in the relationships I had and made while I was here, KJ Robertson, Orlando Lacey, Craig Slocum, DK Billingsley, guys like that, Will Choloh, just a few. I feel like I definitely have more work to do, but I’ve made some strides in the right direction of “job’s never finished”.
JI: How do you spend your free time outside of football?
CM: A lot of guys like to play video games, [but] I’m not real big on video games. I’m a big TV show, movie guy, or I’m chilling with my dog Duke; he’s a lab. Oh, oh, nice. That’s really how I’m now spending most of my free time. And also, just hanging with friends, people who are in my circle, people that I love.
JI: What’s the last show you binged?
CM: Last year, I binged the new Game of Thrones. I’m real big on Game of Thrones. Oh, yeah. I hate waiting for seasons (laughs). I’ll let them finish, and then I have to watch the whole season. House of the Dragon, I’m really waiting for the next season to come out. But yeah, that’s been really my last one. I’m actually gonna need a new show. You got any in mind?
JI: I’m actually looking for a new show to binge, too. I gotta think about some and let you know. I’ve been thinking about finally getting into Game of Thrones; what do you like about it?
CM: It really started with my mother. She was the first one to watch it, and she was like, “hey, you need to watch this”. And then, I’m not sure if you know about it, in the first Game of Thrones, you know those holiday seasons? Something called the Red Wedding. That’s what really made me flip, and I was like, “okay, maybe I do need to actually look into the show”. That’s how it happened with Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon. [I got excited] when I saw it was coming out. I wish they would do without the finale of Game of Thrones, but that’s fine.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
CM: You’ll be getting a guy that’s all in for the team, willing to do anything. I’ll fill up the water bottles. I don’t care. Anything just to help the team grow. I want to be a catalyst for any team, [bring] more of that high energy, because that’s type of guy you have to be if you aspire to be at the best level. You have to want to do everything right. Even the little things, the extra work, just really understanding that the game is not about just you. You have to look at the bigger picture. It’s about the team. Just gotta let the team know: I’m all in.
Note: I did end up DMing Carlton with some show recommendations.