Paul Perkins' Leadership Will Help UCLA Be Under-the-Radar Contender in 2015

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor IJanuary 3, 2015

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 02:  Paul Perkins #24 of the UCLA Bruins runs for a touchdown past Nate Jackson #24 of the Kansas State Wildcats in the second quarter during the Valero Alamo Bowl at Alamodome on January 2, 2015 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Running back Paul Perkins’ crucial contributions in No. 14-ranked UCLA’s 2014 season finale—a 40-35 defeat of No. 11 Kansas State in Friday’s Alamo Bowl—set the tone for the Bruins’ 2015 campaign.

Behind its breakout star, UCLA will be a contender next season.

Perkins scored the Bruins’ final touchdown of the season on a 67-yard run, capping a career-high 194-yard performance.

Then, after a quick Kansas State score, Perkins was the first player to the ball on the Wildcats’ ensuing onside-kick attempt.

Ending the year on such a high note provided the perfect close to Perkins’ monster season, in which he became the first UCLA player to lead the conference in rushing since 1995. His 194 yards Friday gave him 1,575 for the year.

A host of returners for next season in addition to Perkins made significant impacts in Friday’s season finale. If momentum from the bowl season carries over into the next campaign, linebacker Deon Hollins should roll into 2015 with all the force he brought on three sacks of Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters.

With linebacker Myles Jack making plays in space and grabbing and interception, and wide receiver Jordan Payton finishing with a team-high four receptions, the Alamo Bowl proved UCLA has plenty to look forward to in the next year.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Just expect the Bruins to embark on the coming months with far less fanfare than a year ago around this time.

An offseason of hype surrounded UCLA throughout the 2014 offseason, thanks largely to the return of quarterback Brett Hundley, the only starter head coach Jim Mora's known in his three years at the helm.

Hundley delivered in his farewell game, rushing for 96 yards and two touchdowns to go with 136 yards passing and a third score.

Replacing his dual-threat playmaking is a tall order for head coach Jim Mora and his staff in the coming offseason. Having Perkins will help, as offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone told Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times.

"[Perkins] takes the pressure off the quarterback and having him have to try to make every play," Mazzone said.  

In the postgame press conference, Hundley took the praise of Perkins further, via ASAPSports.com:

Paul has always been, to me, the best back in the country.  He showed that today.  And I think this offense, having Johnathan Franklin, and then everybody is wondering who was going to replace him, Paul stepped in and did an amazing job, and has done that consistently this year every time he plays.

Still, in a sport wherein pundits heap credit or blame one position, depending on the situation, uncertainty at that spot means the Bruins can likely forget being a top-10 team to open 2015.

Less attention might be a good thing from UCLA’s perspective. Following the Bruins’ 31-10 loss to Stanford on Nov. 28, which denied them a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Jack said getting away from the pressure of outside expectations buoyed the Bruins during their five-game winning streak in the second half of the regular season.

A quiet offseason matches the disposition of its new offensive star, Perkins. Soft spoken off the field, his play speaks loud and clear.

Around Perkins, the UCLA offense also returns every player in its receiving corps who made an impact this season, and the line will be among the most veteran in the Pac-12 after two years as one of the league’s younger units.

Mora and his staff have other issues to iron out in the coming season that emerged during the Alamo Bowl, and kept UCLA from matching its lofty expectations in 2014. The Bruins nearly had a 25-point halftime lead evaporate, which made Perkins' late heroics necessary.

UCLA was also flagged 15 times for a staggering 128 yards. The team came into Friday's game ranked No. 117 in the nation at 70.9 penalty yards per game.

Certainly the Bruins have their question marks. But with Perkins part of an experienced lineup, UCLA can fly under the radar as contenders next season.

 Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Season statistics via CFBstats.com. Game statistics via CBSSports.com.