UCLA's Paul Perkins Has Emerged as One of the Country's Top Backs

paul perkins ucla bruins primetime

UCLA knew it had a gem in running back Paul Perkins. But everyone else? They've been slow to catch on. While the spotlight has been reserved for former Bruins stars such as quarterback Brett Hundley and two-way phenom Myles Jack, or current QB Josh Rosen, Perkins has been overlooked.

Well, not anymore.

When UCLA's passing game struggled against No. 19 BYU in September — Rosen threw three interceptions in the first half — the team relied on Perkins. And boy, did he show up and show out. Perkins bobbed-and-weaved and dipped-and-dived for 219 yards on 26 carries, both career highs. His next act was a three-touchdown effort (another career high) versus No. 16 Arizona to give the Bruins a 4-0 start.

Although those performances drew notice, Perkins's ability to move the chains is nothing new. He led the Pac-12 with 1,575 rushing yards in 2014, but he wasn't talked about much. That didn't matter to the soft-spoken, 5'11" Perkins, who doesn't need others to validate his game. "I don't look for praise," he says.

But his former QB knew he was worthy of attention. "He's under the radar a lot," Hundley said in 2013. "But I promise everybody that he's going to be a monster."

The way Perkins has been playing, it looks like Hundley knew what he was talking about.


Hundley has known Perkins since they were kids, so he was qualified to make a bold prediction. They were in the same track club and both attended Chandler (Arizona) High School.

At Chandler, Perkins was a three-star recruit as a running back, dodging defenses with highlight-reel moves. In a touchdown run against Mesquite High School in 2011, Perkins lost his balance after hurdling over a defender and unleashed a semi-breakdance-meets-half-cartwheel to regain his footing before sprinting to the end zone.

paul perkins ucla bruins primetimeThat type of agility and execution (not to mention speed — he set the school record in the 300-meter hurdles with a time of 37.35 seconds) helped Perkins continue the family football tradition. His father, also named Paul, played fullback for Arizona State before joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts. His uncle, Don, played eight seasons as a running back for the Dallas Cowboys.

"Looking at my baby pictures, I always had a football with me. My dad and brother, who is a [true freshman] quarterback at Arizona State now, would toss the ball around all the time," Perkins remembers.

After his father left the league, the family would dedicate Sundays to NFL games. But not everyone was rooting for the same team. "I liked the St. Louis Rams; my brother liked the San Diego Chargers. My dad liked the Colts and Bucs," Perkins says.

As a kid who grew up in the Grand Canyon State, how did Perkins end up a Rams fan? "My mom is from St. Louis," he answers. "She rubbed off on me! She's a big influence."


Perkins's mother, Ore, is also something of a press secretary. While Perkins is nonchalant about the media attention he is now getting, his mother tracks all of it. "My mom keeps me informed. She gets Google alerts on me," he says. "She'll call and text me the things that people are saying and writing about me. But I'm still not fazed by any of it."

Not even when BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall publicly declared that the running back was the reason the Cougars lost to UCLA.

"The difference in the game was Perkins," Mendenhall said. "I thought he was really difficult to tackle, and I thought he was a catalyst for their team.... I think their running back was just very patient at creating holes and making us miss."

That's exactly how Perkins operates on the field. "When I see traffic around me, it's going to take a lot to take me down," says Perkins, who also had 151 rushing yards and two touchdowns against UNLV the week before the BYU game.

paul perkins ucla bruins primetime

That strategy is how Perkins ran away with six 100-yard games in 2014. It's also why early this season he was already in the conversation about who would win this year's Heisman.

But again, Perkins isn't interested in the buzz that surrounds him. He's more focused on making sure UCLA's young running backs are developing.

"They are my priority. I want them to be the best runnings backs to come out of UCLA. I want them to be better than me," Perkins says. It's his way of paying it forward after former Bruins tailback Johnathan Franklin took Perkins under his wing. "He'd take me to work out, watch film, and eat with him," Perkins says. "Now, I'm doing that for these guys."

Perkins also gathers teammates for bowling — and laser tag, an activity he likes to gloat about. "I'm really good at it," he says. "Watch out. I have a high winning percentage." Aside from the occasional outings, you can find Perkins cooking (see sidebar) and watching Teen Titans Go! and The Amazing World of Gumball regularly. "I'm almost the last of a dying breed on the team of players who watch cartoons religiously. My teammates will ask, 'You're [21] and still watching these things?!'" Perkins says. "I'll always be a kid at heart."

From anonymity to the spotlight, this big kid is having a big year. And finally, everyone is paying attention.

Photos: Charles Baus/Cal Sport Media (profile), Peter Joneleit/Cal Sport Media (celebration, action)

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