By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Vick Ballard is a feature back who doesn’t get the number of carries most feature backs crave. And he’s cool with that.
There’s no question he’s the workhorse in Mississippi State’s backfield – he led the team last season with 968 yards and 19 touchdowns – but Ballard is more than willing to share the load with LaDarius Perkins and whoever else gets the ball.
“Any time you’ve got other people at your position that can make plays the same way you can, I think it’s a good thing,” Ballard said, “because it keeps us all fresh, and the team feeds off us, too, if I make plays like that.”
Ballard, a senior who transferred in from Gulf Coast Community College last year, and Perkins, a third-year sophomore, form the heart of MSU’s ground game. Perkins rushed for 566 yards and had 247 receiving yards, accounting for six touchdowns in all.
Throw in the return of quarterback Chris Relf (713 yards, five TDs rushing), and State has one of the SEC’s best returning rushing attacks. The Bulldogs ranked second in the league last season with 214.8 yards per game, and they’re expecting to get even better.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot smarter, so we’ve gotten better. We’ve been very consistent,” running backs coach Greg Knox said. “I think we’ve gotten a lot better with the little things this spring.”
For Ballard, the improvement has come in his knowledge of the offense. He enrolled at MSU in January of 2010, giving him plenty of time to develop into a lead tailback, but he’s reached a greater comfort level now.
Perkins is also learning, and he’s growing. Listed at 190 pounds, he said he’s actually up to around 193 and looks even bigger than that. The 5-foot-10 Perkins hasn’t lost any speed, saying that he’s actually faster this spring, and he’s looked it by ripping off several long runs.
He credits offseason work that included a “speed school” drill twice a week, and his ability to more quickly read defenses and get through holes allows him to find that fifth gear a little sooner.
“He still has a lot of things to work on, but mentally he’s growing up, and he’s maturing,” Knox said. “And we need him to continue to mature, and that’s the next step for him, is to grow into Vick’s spot as being a leader.”
While Ballard and Perkins complement each other – the 5-11, 215-pound Ballard has some speed but finds most of his yards between the tackles – they manage to push each other without it devolving into a battle for snaps.
There is a synthesis about their games that forbids selfishness. Each man knows his role. Ballard is option No. 1, especially near the goal line – he had seven 1-yard TD runs last season – and Perkins is No. 1A, a player who can also sting defenses in the passing game.
“It’s all fun, man,” Perkins said. “We’re all competing, and we just want to win, that’s all. It’s nothing about who gets the most reps and stuff, as long as we get our jobs done, it’s automatic.”
Knox makes sure, too, that everyone understands the deal. Ballard, who can be seen on the practice field instructing younger backs, has earned his status, and Perkins is a well-prepared understudy who can take the reins of the running game if need be, such as when Ballard missed a game due to injury last season.
In that game, a 29-24 win over UAB, Perkins rushed for a career-high 131 yards.
The next week, Ballard returned and rushed for 98 yards in a 10-7 win at Florida.
“We talk about geese, and we’re flying in that V-formation, and Ballard’s that lead goose,” Knox said. “And everybody understands that he’s our leader, and we’re drafting off of him. As he goes, we go.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.