But the fifth-year senior finally got his chance last season, and responded with 1,024 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Now he's ready to cement his legacy as one of the school's best running backs in his final season. With another 1,000-yard performance, Perkins would become the school's third all-time leading rusher behind Dixon and Jerious Norwood.
Perkins, a Greenville, Miss., native who is listed at 5-feet-10 and 195 pounds, has proven surprisingly durable despite a relatively small frame. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said he "never really had any doubt (Perkins) could be that every-down player for us," even when he was buried on the depth chart.
"He's not a tall, skinny 190 pounds, he's a short, thick 190 pounds," Mullen said. "So he had the size to do that. He works at pass protection, works at all the little things the right way."
Mullen said Perkins' progression is the blueprint of how he wants to run his program. He redshirted in 2009, learning from Dixon, and then spent two seasons in a part-time role behind Ballard. Last year, he experienced what it was like to be the starting running back and now he's emerged into one of the team's premier players.
Dixon and Ballard are now in the NFL. Perkins hopes to join them next year.
But for now, he's working on becoming more versatile as Mississippi State tries to improve on last season's 8-5 record. He caught 19 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns out of the backfield last season.
While Dixon and Ballard had the ideal size for a running back — both easily topping 200 pounds — Perkins is a little more unconventional. He's still had plenty of success.
MSU linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who is 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, said Perkins is no fun to bring to the ground during practice.
"He's a lot stronger than he looks," McKinney said. "I have a lot of trouble bringing him down. He keeps moving his legs and he's so low to the ground. A lot of people underestimate him, but he's really tough to see behind all those blockers and then if he gets past you, you aren't catching him."
Perkins said the topic of his place among Mississippi State's greatest running backs occasionally came up during summer workouts, when the team's strength coaches would try to motivate players.
"That would be a great honor for me," Perkins said. "But really, I'm just looking forward to this season. We're trying to have a great year. Trying to win as many games as possible and an SEC championship."
Perkins did say it's been satisfying to prove doubters wrong — especially when it comes to his ability to run inside among the SEC's big boys.
"I used to hear a lot of negative things like 'Oh, he's so small, he can't be an every-down back," Perkins said. "But I worked my butt off last year, and I'm still working my butt off, to have a great year like I did last year. All the seniors are trying to bring everybody up to our level."
Now Perkins is one of the team's mentors — especially for young running backs like Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin and Ashton Shumpert.
Like Dixon and Ballard before, Perkins has embraced the role.
"He's taught us a lot," said Robinson, who is roommates with Perkins. "You see the way he always works his eyes on the field, follows his blocks and stays patient. He shows you what it takes to be successful against SEC competition."