Things were not going well for the best college football player you’ve probably never seen.
Every time Donnel Pumphrey ran the ball up the middle, he slammed into a jumble of bodies. Every time he swung wide, linebackers and cornerbacks waited for him at the edge.
“I was kind of hesitating,” he said. “Couldn’t get it going.”
The San Diego State running back has made a habit of spectacular performances before small crowds and late-night television. Playing in the Mountain West Conference — on the outskirts of the big time — he has put himself in position to surpass 6,400 career yards.
That would rank him above Ron Dayne and Tony Dorsett, above Ricky Williams and Charles White. It would make him the most prolific rusher in NCAA history.
As California Coach Sonny Dykes said after Pumphrey ran for 281 yards against the Golden Bears last month: “He makes people miss.”
But on a warm Friday night at Qualcomm Stadium last week, with the stands mostly empty, Pumphrey could not seem to crack a San Jose State defense insistent upon crowding the box.
Midway through the second quarter, he lined up wide, ran a quick stutter route and had to reach for the pass. A defensive back took the opportunity to hammer him to the turf.
“A big hit,” he said later, breaking into a grin. “It got me excited.”
The first thing you notice is his size, or lack thereof. San Diego State lists the senior at 5 feet 9, 180 pounds, but that might be generous.
Pumphrey has always been the small guy on the team, starting from the time he showed up as a freshman at Canyon Springs High in Las Vegas.
“About 130 pounds when I got him, maybe less than that,” said Hunkie Cooper, his coach then. “I had to order an extra-small uniform.”
Still, Cooper knew what he was getting — he had seen Pumphrey around the neighborhood, had watched him play Pop Warner.
“You could tell he truly loved football,” the coach said. “He worked as if it was his job, always the first one at practice, first in every conditioning drill.”
A knack for finding the hole — and a blurry acceleration once he got there — made Pumphrey special. He also had a way of avoiding direct hits.
It was a matter of survival for an undersized back, and the result of studying game film, learning the opponent’s schemes.
“That way you know where the defense is coming from,” Pumphrey said.
As his reputation grew, coaches pushed him in the weight room and at the dinner table, hoping the rest of him would get a little bigger too.
“We put him on protein shakes,” said Cooper, who eventually followed Pumphrey to San Diego State as wide receivers coach. “We fed him five or six peanut butter sandwiches a day and lots of ice cream.”
Pumphrey averaged more than nine yards a carry as a senior, rushing for 1,491 yards and earning all-state honors. Yet, when recruiters from major programs came around, they all said the same thing: He’s too small.
The Canyon Springs coaches urged Pumphrey to stay patient.
“We’ll find you the right fit,” Cooper recalled saying. “You’re too good not to play Division I.”
It was the fourth game of the 2013 season, the Aztecs facing New Mexico State, and their freshman back gained 167 yards. Coach Rocky Long downplayed it a bit.
“I think he did a nice job running the ball,” Long said.
San Diego State had been the first team to offer Pumphrey a scholarship. He had shown up with a chip on his shoulder.
His breakout game in New Mexico was followed by 100-yard performances against Nevada and Air Force. After serving as a backup that season, he earned the starting job, rushing for 1,867 yards as a sophomore and then 1,653 as a junior.
Speed and a natural wiggle were only part of his skill set. He was still hungry to prove himself, determined to show his durability as an every-down back who could carry the ball 20 to 30 times a game.
“I wasn’t sure, when we recruited him, if he could run the ball up inside,” Long said recently. “I’m still surprised at how well he runs between the tackles.”
Pumphrey explained it this way: “If you play this game of football, you have to be a dog.”
College football began to take notice this fall as Pumphrey’s name appeared on award watch lists. People started to realize Dayne’s record of 6,397 career yards was within reach.
“Any great running back you’ve ever seen, he’s got all the traits,” Long said. “He catches the ball well, he runs with it well, he blocks well, he does everything well.”
This season began slowly with 98 yards against New Hampshire, but then came the big night against Cal and 220 yards at Northern Illinois. Pumphrey hit the 1,000-yard mark halfway through the schedule, leading his team into the top 25 in the polls.
“Going into the game, we figured we could hold him to 150,” UNLV Coach Tony Sanchez said. “Most guys, you say under 100.”
The big hit against San Jose State woke him up. Pumphrey took a handoff on the very next play and veered around left end.
The defense was waiting for him out there, just like before.
“You never know where he’s going to cut,” San Jose linebacker Frank Ginda said. “You have to play smart and play low so he doesn’t make a quick move.”
This time, Pumphrey dispensed with the fakes, no dip or cutback, just pure acceleration. Turning the corner and racing down the sideline, he left two tacklers grabbing at air.
“I hit them with speed,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
After the 27-yard touchdown, he began to find a rhythm, steady if not spectacular, grinding away.
Pumphrey admits to watching other top backs — Dalvin Cook of Florida State, Leonard Fournette of Louisiana State — from afar. He hopes to join the very best players this season with an invitation to the Heisman Trophy presentation.
“I don’t really chase stats,” he said. “I don’t feel that kind of pressure.”
So, against San Jose State, he didn’t mind pounding away or acting as a decoy on play-action passes to open things up for tight end David Wells, who had a career night with five catches and a touchdown.
“That’s my roommate,” Pumphrey said. “I love that he is able to make big plays.”
Late in the third quarter, Pumphrey found a hole up the middle and slithered past a linebacker, hitting the gas as he reached the secondary. The final defender had no chance at stopping a 23-yard touchdown run.
Those kinds of plays have piqued the NFL’s curiosity, even if there are questions about how a back of Pumphrey’s size translates to the next level. A scout at the San Jose State game said: “That will be his biggest problem.”
But another NFL scout suggested Pumphrey can make the transition.
“He runs bigger than his size and a lot of that is his mentality,” the scout said, speaking anonymously because he is not authorized to make public statements. “Very good vision, instincts and elusiveness.”
His 135 yards Friday helped the Aztecs to a 42-3 win, kept him first nationally with 1,246 yards for the season and left him eighth on the all-time list with 5,518 yards, just ahead of LaDainian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker and Archie Griffin.
It will take 176 yards a game — right around his average — for Pumphrey to break Dayne’s record in the regular season. If San Diego State reaches the conference championship and a bowl game, as expected, he might even get a chance to go prime time.
“That’s my job,” he said. “To help my team get there.”
Until then, Pumphrey will continue to chase history in half-empty stadiums, performing on late-night television, the best player you’ve probably never seen.