San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey remains in a state of shock. It’s not denial, per se, just an inability to comprehend what happened.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” he said on Tuesday, a mere three days after breaking Marshall Faulk’s school rushing record (4,589 yards) in a 45-40 win over Cal. “This is crazy. I was just telling the guys, my teammates, the other day. ‘I can’t believe it.'”
A back listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, who in high school held offers from four FBS programs — including just one Power Five school — cementing himself as an all-time program great and a player to watch at a talent-heavy position nationally?
If you don’t know about Pumphrey yet, you get a pass this time. 2016 is the year of the running back in college football — even more so than last year. You can list LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey — both of whom Pumphrey watches closely each week — FSU’s Dalvin Cook, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Oregon’s Royce Freeman, and you would only be scratching the surface of the depth this position has nationally.
Lost in that shuffle, at least until now, has been Pumphrey. At the very least, he’s earned the role of college football’s most underrated back. The senior entered the season with 4,272 career yards and back-to-back years in which he finished in the top-10 nationally in yards (1,653 and 1,873 in 2015 and 2014, respectively). Through two weeks, he leads the FBS with 379 yards on the ground.
How did someone considered too small by many programs carve out such big accomplishments? It starts with the man Pumphrey leapfrogged in the record books: Faulk.
“He’s given me the option to reach out any time. He’s definitely a mentor,” Pumphrey said.
That’s a big deal for someone who grew up in the San Diego area.
The two speak when time allows. They’re football junkies, and like all great players, Pumphrey craves any piece of information that can improve his game.
A recent encounter came this past offseason, right as the season was about to begin. According to Pumphrey, Faulk taught him something he learned while playing with the Aztecs from 1991-93.
“Patience has always been a part of my game,” Pumphrey said while acknowledging that’s not always the case for smaller, quicker running backs, “but what [Faulk] really taught me was how to have a better football I.Q. He taught me about different defensive fronts and reading defenses.”
Another thing Pumphrey admired about Faulk’s game was his versatility. The 2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee is the only running back in NFL history to have 12,000 rushing yards and 6,000 receiving yards. At San Diego State, Faulk had 82 career receptions. Pumphrey has 80.
“He was able to make plays catching and running. He could make guys miss,” Pumphrey said. “It’s unreal that I would break his record.”
Pumphrey’s not done besting Faulk, either. With 34 more yards, Pumphrey will pass Faulk as San Diego State’s career leader in yards from scrimmage for a running back (5,562). Nine more touchdowns gives Pumphrey the most scores from scrimmage. There’s a good chance Pumphrey breaks the yards record on Saturday against Northern Illinois. The touchdown record should come later this year, barring any injury.
With a little luck, San Diego State could be playing in the Group of Five’s slot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Though Houston is college football’s favorite playoff crasher, any loss by the Cougars could open up things for the Aztecs if they go undefeated — and that’s Pumphrey’s goal. So far, this team looks good enough to at least fulfill their lofty preseason expectations with a Mountain West divisional title.
None of this may have been possible if Pumphrey hadn’t returned for his senior year. But the chance to make a name for himself in the NFL was something that could wait. In that way, he differs from Faulk. “I just wanted to be around the guys in the locker room one more time,” he said. “I’m never going to get this type of opportunity again. In the NFL, it’s a business.”
It’s hard to tell what kind of pro Pumphrey will be, though the Faulk comparisons will undoubtedly follow him. He’ll have to play bigger than his size, but that’s something he’s been doing for years. Pumphrey is anything but a scat back and unafraid when it comes running between the tackles.
This much is certain, though: he will always have a special spot at San Diego State, even if he’s unwilling to admit it.
“In 10 years, I just know I’ll be proud I went here,” Pumphrey said. “I hope we’re consistent and I know coach [Rocky] Long will be here for a long time.”
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / How Donnel Pumphrey is channeling his inner Marshall Faulk for San Diego State