With Vick Ballard being out with an injured ankle, Mississippi State was wondering where their rushing offense would come from last Saturday.
Enter LaDarius Perkins.
The redshirt freshman tailback carried the Bulldogs offense through a 29-24 victory over Alabama-Birmingham with 131 yards on 18 carries and two total touchdowns earning him Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors for the second time this season.
“It shows the program and their belief in the program, that when your number's called, you're ready to go in and perform at a very high level," Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. "LaDarius' number was called on Saturday night, and he performed at that high level."
Saturday marked the first time in his MSU career that Perkins eclipsed the 100-yard mark but when asked Monday afternoon says he’s not worried about a conflict over the starting tailback position with Ballard.
“Vick shouldn’t feel threatened because he knows he’s a great player,” Perkins said. “He knows I’m a pretty good player and when he’s back to 100 percent, we’ll be a pretty tough thing to stop.”
Ballard told Mullen before Saturday’s game he wasn’t fully healthy and the MSU coaching staff decided to sit the star back, who is still tied for the league lead in touchdowns and total points, in the hope of getting him activated for this Saturday’s matchup against Kentucky (6 p.m., ESPNU).
“It was good we didn’t have to play Vick,” Mullen said. “He told me he was 85 percent – OK – I like 100 percent of Vick Ballard.”
The career-high 18 carries for Perkins is a complete reversal from two weeks ago when he got one carry for 5 yards in a 10-7 victory at Florida.
At only 190 pounds, Perkins arrived on campus last year known for his blazing 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard-dash and was seen as a future weapon on the edges with big play capability.
“Certain players that we run in the pass game basically the running backs are check-downs for the quarterback,” Perkins said. “When that happens, that’s when I can turn a small gain into a big play.”
Perkins came to State as the 24th-best prospect in the state of Mississippi and 77th-best back in the country by many recruiting services after being named second-team All-State out of St. Joseph’s High School.
What those reports didn’t account for is his 330-pound bench press and strength to take the football in between the tackles.
“If the hole calls for him to run outside then that’s what he does,” MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “If it calls for him to go inside – that’s what he does. It’s really that simple.”
Arguably the most impressive aspect about Perkins’ physical condition is his self-confessed diet that includes a large secret stash of junk food. He told reporters Tuesday that he hides in his favorite drawer a lot of Reese's, Twix, and Skittles. He also said one of his pre-game rituals is eating a Snickers bar before the team’s walk-through Friday and before the games on Saturday.
“(Senior center J.C. Brignone) says I’m pretty ripped up and doesn’t know how because I eat so much of this junk food,” Perkins said. “Anything I want to eat – I eat.”
Apparently Perkins' candy diet is not news to MSU strength coach Matt Balis because Perkins says every day in practice he jokes with the freshman tailback about his 4-percent body fat knowing he can't stay away from junk food.
"He gets on me about it all the time and tells me he doesn't know how I stay so fit eating that stuff," Perkins said. "I have a stash, a drawer in my room that has all the candy. I have chocolate, sour Skittles, stuff like that. I eat it a lot. I'll eat in the cafeteria but then I always have to go back and eat my candy too."
Perkins began the 2010 season under what Mullen referred to as the ‘running back rotation’ that had the redshirt freshman seemingly behind the quarterback for many third-and-short type situations. Now that the Greenville native has responded to the steady increase in workload, he’s been seen creating big plays, like his 51-yard run last week against the Blazers that essentially sealed State’s win, in the run and pass game.
Hughes suspended for helmet-to-helmet hit
Mississippi State freshman linebacker Chris Hughes has been suspended for Saturday's game against Kentucky due to the Southeastern Conference deeming his helmet-to-helmet hit last week in MSU's 29-24 win over Alabama-Birmingham as being a "flagrant, unsportsmanlike act which occurred at the 0:26 mark in the second quarter."
Hughes has played in every game this season except the road loss against LSU, mostly on special teams, and recorded five total tackles and one for loss in his first season with the Bulldogs program.
The SEC released the suspension in a Tuesday morning press release.
"This action was the result of a flagrant, unsportsmanlike act which occurred at the 0:26 mark in the second quarter. The action is in violation of Rule 9-1-4 of the NCAA Football Rule Book, which reads, ‘No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder.’
“We coach our players on these situations - how to lead with your shoulder, make sure you wrap up and see the front of the jersey - not only to avoid pointless penalties, but to make sure everyone is safe on the field,” Mullen said. “This is a teachable moment for Chris and our entire team. He'll face the consequences for his actions and learn from it."
Hughes was not penalized after the play and will still be allowed to practice with the team throughout the week. MSU officials have announced the freshman from Mobile, Ala., will not be available to the media throughout the week and Mullen will not take questions on the issue.
"It was a silly mistake, and one that I should not have made," Hughes said via an MSU release. "Now I have to pay the price for my actions. Our coaches teach us and warn us about those types of plays, and I just need to learn from this and make sure it doesn't happen in the future."
Mullen, Stricklin address students about cowbells
Mullen and MSU director of athletics Scott Stricklin addressed the on-going cowbell issue to a large gathering of students Tuesday at the Newell-Grissom Building.
"Ringing your cowbell will not help us win a game," Mullen told students. "Coming to games, making noise, yelling, and staying to the end, those things help us win games."
The Southeastern Conference has already informed Mississippi State it will be fined for violating the league's rule on artificial noisemakers, though Stricklin said Monday the exact dollar amount will be determined by how fans handle the last two home games.
Stricklin also told the Starkville Daily News Monday he fully expects another discussion at the next SEC athletic directors' meeting this spring to include bringing back the ban on cowbells, forcing MSU officials to rethink stadium security in the hope of stopping future fines.
“An important point to make here to our fans is if the ban comes back, the fines structure continues,” Stricklin said. “And at that point, we’ve got evaluate how to assess what went wrong in the past from a security standpoint. That’s a situation none of us from school officials to fans to security people want to be in at all.”
Mullen encouraged the gathering of students Tuesday to help make sure the cowbell stays a part of MSU home games.
"I don't want to have a vote to see what the next symbol of our university will be," said Mullen. "We have a symbol already."
(Editor's Note: SDN sports writer Joel Coleman contributed to this story.)