How many college football players in Division I history can claim the honor of Biggest Play in Program History? Well, 130 to be exact, but how many current players? A handful, at most.
Some are legends.
Barry Krauss made a goal-line stop of Mike Guman, helping Alabama keep a 14-7 lead in the 1979 Sugar Bowl that gave the Crimson Tide the national championship. Doug Flutie launches his Hail Mary for Boston College. Chris Davis won the Iron Bowl for Auburn over Alabama in 2013 when he returned a missed field goal.
And then there’s Tucson High’s Austin Perkins, the presumptive shoe-in for a future mayoral run of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
With seven seconds left in New Mexico State’s regular-season finale against South Alabama, the Aggies led 22-17, but the Jaguars had a shot. South Alabama quarterback Cole Garvin took the snap from his own 43-yard line, dropped back, pumped the ball a few times and uncorked one deep to the streaking Jamarius Way.
But there was NMSU’s Perkins, a former walk-on, a ghost on the recruiting trail, someone overlooked because of his size and the relative anonymity of Tucson. Perkins timed his jump perfectly, extended his body fully and batted the ball down, becoming the toast of New Mexico State.
The Aggies won, clinching a spot in the Arizona Bowl — the team’s first postseason berth in 57 years.
And so, a hero returns home.
‘A damn Swiss Army knife’
There are compliments, and then there are lofty compliments.
“He’s the epitome of what we’ve built here,” New Mexico State head coach Doug Martin said. “He’s a guy no one else wanted to give a chance to.”
Perkins was recruited as a walk-on by schools like Weber State and Wyoming as a 160-pound Tucson High senior. He wanted more, though. Perkins had confidence in his abilities, like all defensive backs must have, but he had more confidence in his work ethic and his character. He was not intimidated by a challenge.
“The way I saw it was I worked too hard to not play D-I, to not try to test the waters,” he said. “I knew I was a hard worker. I knew I was going to risk it.”
New Mexico State secondary coach Brian Bell saw a feistiness in Perkins once he arrived in Las Cruces, a willingness to get down into the muck, the desire to force his will on not just the opponents but the coaching staff.
At the time, the opponent was the Aggies’ starting offense. Perkins quickly became a fixture on the scout team defense, and he volunteered for special teams at every opportunity.
“A lot of people just see scout team as a way to help the offense, but I looked at it as a way to help myself,” he said. “Going against an All-American running back (Larry Rose) on scout team my freshman year was the key for me to show the coaches what I can do. Scout team put me in a position during the spring. The defensive coordinators weren’t watching me; they were watching the defense. So I had the offensive coaches telling the defensive coaches what I could do.”
Perkins made 32 tackles in 10 games during his first season, solid numbers for any freshman.
This year, after switching to safety, he had 42.
Perkins believes he has earned his coaches’ respect with not only his play but his willingness to sell out for his team.
“I started getting the respect in their eyes,” he said. “Not a lot of people can play all four defensive back positions. I can if I’m needed to. That’s when the coaches give me some respect.”
That pliability is not lost on Bell.
“I like to call him a damn Swiss army knife,” he said.
“He can play left, right corner, free, strong safety, and he plays special teams for us. He plays on dang near every special teams unit we have. Special teams is about this, effort. Right? In college, you don’t want to spend a whole lot of time coaching effort.”
That’s something that Tucson High coach Justin Argraves saw plenty of during Perkins’ high school career.
“College coaches, they look at numbers — height, weight, 40 time — and quite frankly, it’s a crapshoot when you just balance things off that,” Argraves said.
“It’s hard for a D-I coach to go and spend time doing their job, coaching their position, and finding everyone across the nation. A lot of kids do go overlooked. But it’s hard to measure a kid’s heart. Coming out of Tucson High, I would’ve told you, the kid can play Division I football.”
Student of the game
In order to make arguably the biggest play in New Mexico State history — at least certainly the biggest play in the last six decades — Perkins not only had to display immense effort but impeccable timing and precise technique.
A defensive back can make up for lack of size with those attributes. It’s rare elsewhere on the field. You don’t see many 5-foot-11-inch, 245-pound offensive tackles in the NFL.
Perkins has that rare ability to play bigger than his size, though, to come up with that extra motor when he needs it.
“It’s a very technical position, and the thing about Austin, he’s a student of the game,” Argraves said. “He comes from a football family. His brother was a standout, his father is my secondary coach. He learned a lot and he’s perfected his craft over the years.”
Bell credits his studying habits, which include added hours poring over video.
“He’s not the biggest guy in the world now, but he understands he has to play with that chip,” Bell said.
“I remember him as a younger player: that guy was always in the office watching tape, asking questions, always around. It’s the same way now. If it wasn’t like that, I’d say you’re a scholarship guy now, you don’t come around. Getting a bit too big for his britches. But he understands what got him to where he is.”
And he understands where he wants to go.
“Every time I step on the field, all I wanted was an opportunity,” he said. “I really play for respect. I play for the name on the front of my jersey and on my back. New Mexico State was the only school that gave me the opportunity to play for them, but I think I’ve opened some eyes.”
He’s excited for one more chance this season to open some more, especially in Tucson. After all, it was Perkins who helped get the Aggies here in the first place.
“That was probably the best moment I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was the most important game of my life. (Teammate DeMarcus Owens) told me after that, that was the play of the year. Being put in that position, to send everyone into history, that’s just unbelievable. It’s so unreal to me.”