Low-key persona serves UCLA’s Paul Perkins well

Paul Perkins has rushed for 1,381 yards this season, the sixth-best mark in UCLA history.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Paul Perkins is dull. He remains a beige running back in a Technicolor college football world.

Ask the UCLA sophomore about his breakout season and he’ll launch into a sermon about the offensive line that lacks only a tambourine and Salvation Army band. Ask a teammate to tell a Perkins story and they’ll stare back like you’re speaking Klingon.

“I don’t have a story,” receiver Jordan Payton said. “I don’t think anyone does.”

Perkins, in short, is a marketing department nightmare — talented enough to promote, quiet enough to breeze by unnoticed.

It can explain a season where Perkins led the Pac-12 Conference in rushing only to get a pat-on-the-head from coaches in the form of honorable mention all-conference.


Getting Perkins to care is a wasted endeavor.

“I’m just a number,” he said.





Those are compliments?

“Oh yeah,” Perkins said. “I’m just another athlete on this team.”

Well, hold on. This season proved otherwise.

Perkins is sixth on the UCLA single-season rushing list with 1,381 yards heading into a game against Kansas State in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Jan. 2. His play took pressure off UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who was the team’s leading rusher last season.

“He’s going to get you those hard yards,” UCLA running back coach Kennedy Polamalu said. “He’s not going sit back there and dance around. He knows how to get positive yards.”

But asking Perkins about his performance only draws his praise for the offensive line. He talked so much about them this season that a reporter requested he not use the words, “offensive line” before one media session.

Perkins smiled and said, “then you can’t use ‘1,000 yards.’ ”

Hundley, who grew up with Perkins, was not surprised.

“He is probably the most well-rounded person I have been around,” Hundley said. “He thinks before he talks. He is very cognizant with what he says and how to let people see his reactions.”

Which is fine with Coach Jim Mora.

“He prefers to keep feelings and emotions to himself,” Mora said. “I’d like more people to have his type of personality.”

Still, Pac-12 coaches weren’t rewarding personality and they shopped elsewhere when it came time to pick all-conference teams.

USC’s Javorius Allen and Utah’s Devontae Booker were first-team selections. Arizona State’s D.J. Foster and Oregon’s Royce Freeman were on the second team. A strong argument can be made for the four. All had outstanding seasons.

But so did Perkins.

“Some people mistake his shyness as weakness,” said Paul “Bruce” Perkins, his father. “He’s not a guy out there saying, ‘look at me’ and pounding his chest. Some people get overlooked because of that. It’s kind of been a stigma attached to him most of his career.”

Still, his father said, Perkins will answer the all-conference snub in his way.

“I know it has fueled his fire,” his father said.

Perkins’ flame just burns a little differently.

He began sports as a kid on an Arizona club team, which is where he first met Hundley. Perkins’ reaction to winning races was routine. It was how he reacted to losing a race that set him apart.

“When he first started competing, there was an Arizona regional track meet where he finished dead last in the 100 meters,” Bruce Perkins said. “He approached the finish like he won. The crowd had such great time with that, seeing a kid run as fast as he could, finish last and still putting his hands in the air like he was first.”

Perkins has continued quietly down that path, though finishing last became a rarity. He finished second in the 330-meter hurdles at the Arizona state meet as a senior at Chandler (Ariz.) High.

Success didn’t change his demeanor. Perkins gained 1,297 yards and scored 20 touchdowns as a senior. He was the most valuable player of the Chandler track team, which won the state title.

Perkins posed for the team photo wearing a “Transformers” mask.

“Paul doesn’t care about what people think of him,” Bruce Perkins said. “He is very comfortable in his own skin.”

Perkins is at a loss to explain why.

“I wish I could tell you,” Perkins said. “It’s how I’ve been all my life. I’m unseen and unheard. There are no stories about me, unless I make the stories.”

So there are stories … video game ones.

“I lost at FIFA last night, that was heartbreaker,” Perkins said. “That was a tough one. I’m going to come back strong.”

Talk about dull.