The beautiful and frustrating thing about college football, and college sports in general, is that you can follow an entire season as a committed viewer, watch every game televised on FOX, ESPN, CBS, and NBC, and still end up having not viewed a single snap of some the game’s most exciting players—those that have been passed over, for whatever reason, and shuffled off to the Group of Five or a lower division.
Donnel Pumphrey, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound running back for the 3-0 San Diego State Aztecs, is one of those guys. Well, he used to be. Now, three years and 4,871 rushing yards later, the senior is one of the nation’s best backs and currently the only player on pace to truly put up any sort of fight against Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign.
Pumphrey grew up in San Diego but moved in to Las Vegas in the eighth grade, where he would go on to play his high school ball at Canyon Springs High School. The running back tore up the local varsity 4A circuit to the tune of 4,152 yards and 49 touchdowns—his senior season, he was named the state’s Player of the Year.
Watching Pumphrey roast Foothill High is akin to watching him roast Pac-12 teams. He’s a small guy, so you know off the bat he has wheels and quickness. But when you see him in action—seamlessly snapping ankles, dusting defensive backs, and eating all the big hits—it doesn’t take long for the absurdity of his skillset to settle in.
When he entered the recruiting process, Pumphrey told ESPN he was recruited by several Power Five schools that saw the athleticism and wanted a piece. Unfortunately for Pumphrey, they also saw his height and weight measurements. The big programs hoping to move him to defensive back thought Pumphrey could be great, just not at running back. He rejected the programs that were pushing for a position change, opting instead to play for his hometown team of San Diego State. The Aztecs were closer to his family, which was a big selling point, per the Las Vegas Sun. They were also willing to let him stick at running back. Turns out, San Diego State was on to something.
Like the majority of three-star recruits, Pumphrey had to wait his turn. With Adam Muema in front of him on the depth chart, Pumphrey notched just one start his freshman campaign—at the conclusion of the 2013 season, Muema was the team leader with 1,244 rushing yards on 256 carries, with Pumphrey finishing second with 752 yards. With his yards per carry at 6.0, it seemed Pumphrey was going to do just fine moving forward, but nobody outside of Pumphrey himself expected what happened in 2014. Hell, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote him off as a big-play-only back, as did Aztec fans and his own head coach, Rocky Long:
“I don’t think D.J. is big enough or physical enough to be the guy that carries the ball 30 times a game. I don’t think he’s that kind of physical presence, but he does a whole bunch of good things,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “Obviously he’s the big play guy, he’s the guy in the open field…. If you can develop a guy that can run between the tackles, the two of them complement each other.”
Like the schools who wanted him on defense, the reporters and the coaches were wrong.
Pumphrey carried the ball an average of 21.2 times per game for 6.8 yards per touch that year. He put together a stunning 1,867-yard, 20-touchdown sophomore campaign, finishing the season ninth in rushing touchdowns and fourth overall in rushing yards behind Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliot, and Tevin Coleman. For a 7-6 Aztecs team, Pumphrey was the best thing they had going, and it took a full season of him kicking the ass of every rush defense he faced to convince his own head coach of that fact. His junior year was much of the same, with a slight drop off in the key statistics—he finished with 1,653 yards, good for seventh in the nation, and 17 scores, good for 12th. Along the way, San Diego State, behind Pumphrey and a top-10 rush defense, snatched the Mountain West crown with an 11-3 record and fucked up Cincinnati in their bowl game, in which Pumphrey both ran and threw for two total touchdowns.
After one year of backup duties and two as a starter, Pumphrey had 4,272 rushing yards to his name, leaving just one name in school history for him to surpass: Marshall Faulk. Faulk compiled 4,589 yards in three years in an Aztecs uniform. (He was also robbed of the Heisman his sophomore season—fucking Gino Torretta beat him out with a completion percentage of 56.7 and a 19-7 touchdown-interception ratio. Well done, esteemed Heisman voters.)
Pumphrey needed just two games to tuck the record under his belt. He achieved his goal of becoming the most prolific back in school history in Week 2 against an admittedly bad Cal defense while running for a cool 281 yards and three scores.
Through three games this season, Pumphey has seven scores and 599 yards on 73 attempts, good for 8.21 yards per carry, and a per-game average of 199.7 yards. That’s an insane pace—last year, he averaged 118.1 per contest. If he somehow managed to maintain it throughout the next nine regular season games, he’d finish as the NCAA’s second all-time leading rusher, behind the legendary Ron Dayne.
Even if he doesn’t reel off 11 consecutive near-200-yard performances, San Diego State is already showing signs of a repeat Mountain West title run, meaning Pumphrey will almost certainly have either 10 or 11 more games, in an offense that hands the ball off on 66 percent of its snaps, to attain his goal of becoming one of the FBS’ all-time top-five rushers. If he cracks 100 yards in his next four games, he’ll pass Herschel Walker to become 12th all time. If he does that the next nine games, he’ll be sixth all time, behind DeAngelo Williams. (Damn, remember DeAngelo in college?)
We’re only three games into Pumphrey’s final collegiate season and it’s clear he is not only going to break the hell out of Faulk’s record, but also go down as one of the best to line up in the backfield in college football history. This, from a guy who was considered too small by every coach in Division 1, even his own.