Aztecs' Donnel Pumphrey Has a Heisman on the Horizon
Once upon a time there was a San Diego State running back who destroyed every opponent. The dynamic 5'10" back wore the number 28 as he rushed for 4,589 yards and 57 touchdowns over his three years as an Aztec. He was drafted 2nd overall in the 1994 NFL Draft, went on to make seven Pro Bowls and even won Super Bowl XXXI with the St. Louis Rams. Now he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His name? Marshall Faulk.
Most agree that Marshall Faulk got snubbed back in 1992, when he finished second in the Heisman voting. Now, a new SDSU running back is being mentioned as a potential Heisman winner. His name? Donnel Pumphrey.
"I’d honestly say that it’s an honor to even be mentioned in that discussion to win that award. It is a goal of mine, but I try to not let things such as accolades distract me as well as my teammates," Pumphrey says.
In Marshall’s Footsteps
Donnel Pumphrey is entering his senior year with the Aztecs, having rushed for over 1,600 yards the past two seasons. He’s compiled a total of 4,272 rushing yards in San Diego - less than 300 yards behind Marshall Faulk’s all-time record.
"I try to study the game similar as he did. I watch a lot of YouTube videos on Marshall, and I sometimes try to do stuff similar to his game. Obviously it isn’t easy to showcase the same abilities as a Hall of Famer such as himself. It is truly an honor to pursue his records. When I first came to SDSU, his records weren’t even in my mind and now to have a chance at them, it feels super good," the 21-year-old says.
But the story doesn’t start three football fields away from a Hall of Famers' rushing record. It starts in a place famously known as Sin City - Las Vegas.
The Break Out Game
Donnel is a Las Vegas native and played ball for Canyon Springs High School, where he naturally dominated (12.4 yards/carry, 150 yards/game in his senior year). He was a 3-star recruit, and when time came for college, the obvious landing place would be UNLV. However, they didn’t believe Pumphrey could produce as their running back, so they recruited him as a wide receiver. But, a school down south wanted it different.
"I came to San Diego because I loved what I saw once I took my visit. San Diego State was my first scholarship offer, and once other schools started looking at me, my mind was completely made up on where I wanted to go, and that being San Diego State University."
His freshman year was very good for a backup; 752 yards and eight touchdowns. His sophomore year, however, was his breakout year. I was lucky enough to be in the stands at Qualcomm back in September 2014, when he really turned on the jets against (as written in the stars) the UNLV Rebels.
"When I play UNLV, I tend to take that opponent personal just because I am from Las Vegas. They recruited me as a receiver, so I have that chip on my shoulder and just wanted to prove to each and every opponent that I could play running back at this level," Pumphrey reminisced.
And proved it, he did. Everyone around me was talking about "No. 19" as he rushed for touchdown after touchdown. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry, totaled 167 yards and four touchdowns.
The show went on in San Diego. Twelve months from now, hopefully the show will go on to the big league. The draft is getting closer but Pumphrey isn’t worried.
"I honestly don’t have expectations for the draft, I’m just excited for my last college season approaching. That stuff will take care of itself if I have another consistent year."
When asked how to describe himself as a running back, he replies "an explosive playmaker" and that he grew up trying to play like Reggie Bush.
"I can run not only between the tackles, but outside as well. I feel like I have descent speed and I can make guys miss in space, and I don’t shy away from contact. I can make plays in the passing game as well," says the 5'9", 180-pound running back.
Most draft sites ranks Pumphrey in the 10-15 range among college running backs. "Lacks size". "Not starting caliber". "Didn’t play against good enough opponents in college". The man himself has a clear answer:
"I’ve been this size my whole life and I’ve been doubted my whole life, but there is just some things in football you can’t teach and I feel like I don’t just play football. I am a football player!"
But before the 2017 draft gets here, there are (at least) 12 games to be played.
Last season, after losing three of the first four games, something happened in the SDSU locker room. The Aztecs went undefeated for the rest of the season, bagged their first Mountain West Championship and won the Hawaii Bowl. And according to their biggest star, that winning streak isn’t going to break easily.
"This team has the opportunity to be special. If we start strong and consistently execute and play our game, then I strongly feel that we can win every game this season. I’ve never been around a group of guys like this who are determined as I am to go get another championship," Pumphrey said.
If the Aztecs really go 12-0, dominating both on defense and offense, can the College Football Playoff committee really turn away from this team?
Only time will tell.
Mattis Holt, PFS Draft Journalist