By David Brandt/The Associated Press
STARKVILLE — LaDarius Perkins isn’t the kind of player who scares a Southeastern Conference defense.
Generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, he’s not the prototype for an every-down running back. But he certainly has speed, strength, and most importantly, he has the backing of fourth-year Bulldogs’ coach Dan Mullen as the team prepares for its season-opening game Saturday against Jackson State.
“I’ve seen him step into that role,” Mullen said. “He’s performing at a very high level.”
Perkins has waited his turn in the backfield behind previous starter Vick Ballard, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards over the past two seasons combined and is now with the Indianapolis Colts. Ballard was almost a picture-perfect SEC back, standing 6 foot, 215 pounds, and equipped with a downhill running style that inflicted as much pain as he received.
Now it’s Perkins’ turn. He was a solid second-option last year, rushing for 422 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 22.7 yards per kickoff return.
But in those roles, he was often utilized for his speed, complementing Ballard’s bruising style. Now Perkins moves into Ballard’s role — which means he’ll have to venture between the tackles on occasion — and Mullen has no doubt he can handle the physical stress of 20-plus carries per game.
“Absolutely,” Mullen said. “The one thing that Perkins has that gets overlooked is he’s 190 pounds. He’s obviously not tall, but he’s a pretty stout guy. It’s something that helps him. Sometimes you look at him and wonder how he can be an every down guy, but actually he’s pretty stout.”
By all accounts, he’s been terrific during preseason practice. Even though he’s a starter, years of being told he’s too small have kept him hungry.
“I come out there every day to prove myself to prove myself every day,” Perkins said. “It doesn’t matter if we have pads on or not.”
Perkins also has a good rapport with new starting quarterback Tyler Russell. The two came into the program together four years ago, redshirting during their first season before slowly moving up the depth chart. Now they hope to lead an offense that’s been inconsistent over the past few years.
Between Russell’s strong arm and Perkins’ improvement, things have changed during August. An inexperienced but improving offensive line has helped as well.
Though Mississippi State’s experienced defense still wins its share of preseason battles, the offense is hitting on some big plays.
“We’re clicking pretty well right now,” Perkins said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing — we’re supposed to be making big plays.”
Perkins should be helped by a group of young running backs who could provide more a physical presence. Sophomore Nick Griffin and freshmen Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton all weigh at least 205 pounds, according to the roster, and Griffin is a true bruiser at 225 pounds.
“Perkins will be our starter, but we’re going to roll those other guys through,” Mullen said. “How many reps those other guys get — we’re still evaluating those guys over the next four or five weeks to see how that pecking order works out.”
But Perkins is undoubtedly the first option. Mullen said he appreciates the way he’s seized the job, but also been a role-model for the younger backs.
“I’ve really seen Perkins do that from day one,” Mullen said. “He’s been at the top. He’s pulled their level of play up. I like the way the guy has been running the football.”
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP