MOBILE, Ala. — Donnel Pumphrey, the most prolific runner in major college football history, knows his surest ticket to the NFL is proving he can do more than just run.
That’s because Pumphrey is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed in at just 169 pounds leading up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl. The San Diego State product could have just pointed to the record 6,405 career rushing yards as the numbers that matter most.
But Pumphrey, who starred at Canyon Springs High School, understands the importance of measurables with NFL teams and came to Mobile aiming to show he can catch passes, return punts and, of course, block much bigger linebackers.
It doesn’t make the projected mid- to late-round draft pick any less confident in his abilities, but he is embracing the different roles.
“I feel like I can be one of the biggest playmakers at the next level,” Pumphrey said. “I’m trying to showcase my versatility catching the ball out of the backfield and route running.
“I feel like I have an advantage as well. Running behind big offensive linemen at the next level, the defense won’t be able to see me. I’m able to be quick and get to the holes and I feel like I have the patience and footwork to do that at the next level.”
Pumphrey broke Ron Dayne’s career rushing record — though Dayne’s postseason totals weren’t counted by the NCAA — and ran for 2,133 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He also caught 100 passes for 1,041 yards in his San Diego State career.
South coach Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns had this advice for Pumphrey: “Keep doing what he’s doing.”
“I mean, he’s been sensational, as you can see,” Jackson said. “He’s made a lot of plays. I know a lot of people will talk about his stature but sometimes that’s what creates the opportunity for him. He’s tough. He knows how to play. He’s got the right bloodlines. Me and his uncle went to high school together so I know him pretty well.”
The scales placed Pumphrey as the second-lightest player at the Senior Bowl, and just two pounds heavier than Memphis kicker Jake Elliott.
Darren Sproles went on to a productive NFL career after playing in the 2005 Senior Bowl, but the 5-foot-6 Sproles weighed in at 187 pounds at the combine.Pumphrey points to Warrick Dunn as well.
“He did it at a very high level and a lot of teams questioned him,” Pumphrey said. “That makes me feel I can do it as well. Plus, I believe in myself.”
He didn’t miss a game at San Diego State because of injury. Pumphrey forced 73 missed tackles as a senior, according to Pro Football Focus. But he didn’t return punts and had only one kickoff return this season.
“They just used me differently than I know they’ll use me at the next level,” Pumphrey said. “At San Diego State, it was more just ground and pound. We didn’t need to pass the ball, because a lot of teams really couldn’t stop our running.
“At the next level, I’m going to have to showcase me catching punts and all different kinds of stuff in order to be a playmaker.”
Pumphrey did quickly make an impression on South quarterbacks Antonio Pipkin (Tiffin) and Josh Dobbs (Tennessee).
“We were doing walk-throughs the other day and to see him out there on the field in live action, it just shows why he was able to lead the NCAA in his career in rushing,” Dobbs said. “He’s definitely a quick, explosive player, and I’m definitely happy he’s on our team.”
Added Pipkin: “He’s got a lot of moves and a lot of shiftiness to him. He’ll get his opportunity somewhere.”
And that’s all Pumphrey wants.