The rise to the top of the running back depth chart couldn’t have come at a better time for Southern Miss redshirt junior Kevin Perkins.
USM head coach Jay Hopson acknowledged Monday that Perkins has earned the opportunity to start this Saturday’s 5 p.m. road game at Troy — the same program that Perkins signed with following his freshman campaign at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Perkins was at Troy for the spring semester in 2018, but a foot injury ended his spring early and he ended up leaving the team that summer and returning to his old junior college for the 2018 campaign.
When asked if he will carry a chip on his shoulder into Saturday’s game against the Trojans, Perkins responded, “Not at all. Everybody holds their own weight.”
Perkins rushed for 915 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior college freshman, but he wasn’t nearly as successful a sophomore with 194 yards and eight scores. After picking up Kentucky and Troy offers as a freshman, there were fewer opportunities waiting on him after the 2018 campaign.
The 6-foot, 225-pound running back decided to walk on at USM ahead of spring practice, made a strong impression on the staff and was placed on scholarship in July.
On Saturday at Mississippi State, he showed some of the potential that college coaches saw during his freshman season of junior college. He broke free for a run of 26 yards and finished with five carries for 51 yards at Mississippi State.
“He’s a 225-pound kid that can run. He’s got good hands,” USM offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner said. “We’d like to get him down to 215 and that’s something we’re working on, but he’s a big strong body kid. We’ve just been impressed with the way he runs the ball. He runs with the right intentions.”
Sophomore Trivenskey Mosley, USM’s top running back, suffered an injury to his right leg in the season-opening 38-10 win over Alcorn State and his return is uncertain.
Even with Mosley sidelined, USM showed some signs of progress running the ball against MSU. The Eagles ran 27 times for 110 yards — a total that would been considered a success against Conference USA competition in 2018.
Faulkner and Hopson both offered praise for the play of the offensive line for overcoming Saturday’s early injury to Coker Wright, who was on crutches at the end of the game with an undisclosed injury.
“The last two games, I’ve been pleased with them in certain areas,” Faulkner said. “They came out and played with low pad level. We did some good things in the run game. There’s a couple of protection things we’ve got to get cleaned up. We’ve got to put it all together. It’s a work in progress. We were really forced to shuffle the lineup around with Coker going down. We’ve got to continue to get better every day.”
Faulkner said that the depth chart would be “by committee” behind Perkins, but senior receiver De’Michael Harris made a nice debut in the backfield on Saturday. He started the game and finished with six carries for 49 yards, including an 18-yarder off the left edge to start the game.
Harris missed most of fall camp and the season opener with a hamstring injury and the staff decided his best chance to contribute following Mosley’s injury was at running back.
Harris ran 362 times for 3,649 yards and 47 touchdowns during his high school career at St. Aloysius in Vicksburg and he sometimes lined up at running back at Hinds Community College, running 23 times for 71 yards as a sophomore.
“De’Michael hasn’t practiced a lot,” Faulkner said. “He’s had a hamstring issue all of camp. He’s a receiver, but we just felt like he added an element of speed versus Mississippi State’s defense. He’s been a wideout for two years and he adds a lot in the wide receiver room.”
USM’s other options at running back are redshirt sophomore Steven Anderson, redshirt sophomore Darius Maberry, freshman Dee Baker and redshirt freshman Jordan Kempf. Maberry saw his first action of the season on Saturday with four carries for 12 yards and Anderson had two rushes for 11.
Perkins believes the Eagles have a nice mix at running back at the moment.
“We can come out with a power back or a speed guy,” he said. “We have guys that can make tight cuts, knifing through the defense. We all bring something different.”
Saturday’s game at Troy will be shown on ESPN-plus.