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Where Are They Now: Donnel Pumphrey

From collegiate all-time rushing leader to NFL free agent, let’s recap the young career of SDSU’s former star running back.

San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey looks for running room against the South Alabama Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

One of the greatest athletes in San Diego State history, Donnel Pumphrey has had quite the journey since graduating from high school in 2013. From receiving a paltry some of scholarship offers, to a stint in the now dissolved XFL, we take a look back at the football life of Donnel Pumphrey.

The Beginning

Before he was breaking rushing records with the Aztecs, Pumphrey was running over defenders in North Las Vegas, Nevada. He attended Canyon Springs High School and flashed his star potential, carrying the rock 494 times, picking up 4,152 yards and 49 touchdowns. As a senior, the Pioneers running back earned Gatorade’s High School Football Player of the Year in the state of Nevada after totaling 1,491 yards and 19 touchdowns on just 160 carries. Pumphrey’s athletic ability was beyond the majority of his high school counterparts and his senior year highlight tape makes that very clear. He also possessed the vision and elusiveness to target and explode through any and every hole his offensive line was able to create for him.

Though his stats and ability were both impressive and undeniable, he only received four scholarship offers. Both Rivals and 247Sports listed Pumphrey as a 3-star recruit and colleges paid little attention to him due to his location and the sparse talent produced from the area. The Universities that would go on to offer him were Duke, Nevada, UNLV, and, of course, San Diego State. Due to recent success, opportunity for playing time, and the recruiting of his soon to be new coaching staff, the Nevada product decided to take his talents to Southern California and join the 2013 SDSU football roster.

3 Stars to College Stardom

Pumphrey flashed his potential during spring practices and training camp, earning him the 2nd string running back role behind starter Adam Muema. The duo helped the Aztecs finish the year 8-5 and 2nd in the West division behind the Derek Carr and Davante Adams led Fresno State Bulldogs who went 11-2. Muema had a stellar final season, rushing 256 times for 1,244 yards and 15 touchdowns. Although Adam received the bulk of the offenses carries, Pumphrey still garnered touches of his own as a true-freshman. On 125 attempts he racked up 752 yards and 8 touchdowns, as well as adding 22 receptions for 234 yards and another 2 scores. He averaged a whole yard more per carry than Muema and flashed the utter dominance we would come to watch over his career at San Diego State.

In his sophomore season, the keys to the offense were passed to him as Muema declared for the NFL draft. With an increase in workload and a 3-star chip on his shoulder, Pumphrey was primed to explode onto the national map, and oh did he. Donnel carried the rock 276 times, totaling a monsterous 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. He hauled in 23 receptions for 160 yards as well, showing off a bit of skill in the passing game. His rushing yards was the fourth most in the country and his 20 TDs were ninth. He also had the third longest run of the season with a 93-yarder against New Mexico in Week 7. The most impressive statistic, however, is his 6.8 yards per carry which tied for seventh among runnings back with at least 200 carries across the nation. Donnel earned first-team all-conference honors by MWC coaches and media, and was the Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player at SDSU’s banquet.

In 2015, his numbers took a bit of a stepback but he played a key role in propelling the Aztecs to a 11-3 season, the first time the school had reached 11 wins in a season since 1969. Pumphrey once again saw an increase in carries, this time taking 309 attempts, picking up 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns, adding another 27 receptions for 414 yards and 3 more scores. Once again his numbers were among the best in the entire country as his rushing yards were seventh and touchdowns were tied for the 11th most. His yards per carry were down to 5.3 but he was much more elusive when one-on-one with defenders, shaking off tackles all season long. Upon the conclusion of the season, Pumphrey would be named Offensive Player of the Year and first-team all-conference by the Mountain West, the first time an Aztec has won the award in the 2000’s. Donnel had one final year before leaving for the NFL and he saved the best for last.

As a senior, Pumphrey officially cemented himself as one of the best running backs in college football history. The Aztecs also concluded the year with a 11-3 record, marking the first time in school history that they had back-to-back 11 win seasons. He notched career highs in carries (349) and rushing yards (2,133) while also plowing into the end-zone on 17 occasions. He reeled in 27 catches for 231 yards, marking the third straight season that he has accumulated 2,000 or more yards from scrimmage. He capped off his college career with 6,045 rushing yards, an NCAA record that is still standing. Donnel’s play was enough for him to tie for the 10th spot in the Heisman voting with Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. On top of his Heisman finish, he was named the MW Offensive Player of the Year for a second straight season, becoming the first RB to and the fourth player overall to reach that feat.

Living the Dream

Coming off such an illustrious college career, many fans and draft pundits alike had Pumphrey being selected somewhere on Day 2 of the 2017 NFL Draft. However, the Aztec great ran into a few major roadblocks for him being drafted so high. The first of which was the sheer amount of talent that was present in his draft class. The 2017 running back class was one of the best of all time as the first six drafted were Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt. On top of the number of star players ahead of him, Pumphrey’s stats were also taken with a grain of salt as he was playing in the the Mountain West rather than at a Power 5 school. The last knock on him was his size and it was a fair one. At the NFL combine, Donnel registered in at five feet and eight inches as well as weighing just 176 pounds which was the lightest at the position.

Although all these things stood in his way, the Philadelphia Eagles saw enough talent to warrant using their 132nd pick in the 4th round on the SDSU alum. He was the 12th running back off the board and would join Nico Siragusa and Damonte Kazee as the only Aztecs drafted in 2017. During training camp, he competed with Darren Sproles, Byron Marshall, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement for a spot in the running back rotation. Before the beginning of the regular season, Head coach Doug Pederson named Pumphrey the fourth running back on the depth chart, behind the likes of LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, and Corey Clement.

He would eventually be placed on injured reserve in September after tearing his hamstring during practice. He would go on to miss his entire rookie season and was not able to record a single touch or snap played in 2017. That year the Eagles would defeat the New England Patriots 41–33 in the Super Bowl, earning Pumphrey his first Super Bowl ring, albeit in a fashion no one would want. He would then spend the offseason rehabbing and preparing for the 2018 season, but on September 1, 2018, Donnell was waived by the Eagles.

Not even a week later, the Detroit Lions added him to their practice squad, although he would be dropped before the end of the month. It is easy to understand the frustration Pumphrey could have been feeling to this point as he had yet to receive a true attempt to prove his worth in the NFL. In October of the same year the Eagles called him again and signed him to their practice squad. He spent the rest of the season continuing to heal and show his coaches in practice what he could do. It was enough for the team to sign him to a future/reserve contract for the 2019 season. Despite earning a second stint with the franchise that drafted him, Donnel was unable to earn a spot on the final 53-man roster heading into the season and would once again become a free agent.

Philly to DC

After bouncing around NFL, Pumphrey chose to take his talents to the “new” league on the block. When the XFL announced its return to existence earlier this year, fans of football were elated as it meant more of their favorite sport was coming even after the NFL’s Super Bowl. He would go on to be selected 49th overall in the seventh round of the XFL draft by the DC Defenders. He was the 12th running back taken and the second by the Defenders who drafted New Mexico’s Jhurell Pressley 17th overall.

The team went with a one-two punch at the position as both players finished the shortened season with 40+ carries. Neither back was extremely impressive, as Pressley had 42 carries for 190 yards and Pumphrey totaled 46 attempts and 168 yards with neither rushing for a touchdown. Although he did receive more touches, Donnel was less effective, owning a yards per attempt of 3.7 compared to Jhurell’s 4.5. He did contribute some in the passing game, hauling in 9 of his 14 targets for 68 yards but once again could not find the end-zone.

The league came crumbling down after a hot start due to the COVID-19 pandemic, effectively ending the season early and rendering its employees jobless. He did not “wow” per se, but the experience was much better than not playing professional football.

What’s Next?

The XFL did go under after five games in the 2020 season, but they look to bounce back in 2021 and beyond. In the meantime, Pumphrey is an NFL free agent and is working hard to make his way back on to a roster. The pandemic makes this much more difficult as working out for teams is far more difficult, resulting in many players, even stars such as Cam Newton, being left unsigned. Even with these challenging circumstances, I have no doubt that Donnel will receive an offer closer to or during the NFL season. Assuming all goes as planned, it will be up to him to be ready and willing to prove his worth. There are many unknowns in this situation but one thing is for certain, Donnel has the entire Aztecs nation rooting for him from San Diego, California!