San Diego State football will have the luxury of filtering its offense through senior running back Donnel Pumphrey when the Aztecs open the 2016 campaign on September 3.
Head coach Rocky Long and company lucked out; the reigning Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year didn’t have to return to the program. Pumphrey could have plunged into the NFL Draft pool fresh off a successful junior season — one that concluded with a conference championship, the aforementioned honor in the Mountain West, and a Christmas Eve shellacking of the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Hawaii Bowl.
Instead, the Las Vegas native bypassed the pros and reverted to San Diego State, where a certain void in self efficacy needs to be filled.
Pumphrey hasn’t checked off all the boxes on his personal wish list. He’s become fastened to a new task: surpassing one of the best players in program history, running back Marshall Faulk.
“I would like to break all of (Marshall) Faulk’s records,” Pumphrey said in a release in January. “He’s an NFL Hall of Famer and had a terrific college career, and it would be a great accomplishment for our team if I was able to achieve that.”
Individual goals tend to rub college football fans the wrong way, but the 5-foot-9 phenom deserves to focus on personal objectives. Pumphrey’s been a mainstay amid the Rocky Long era, helping the Aztecs finish over .500 each of the last three seasons. San Diego State, with the steady hand — and legs — of its tailback, has partially dethroned Boise State, a club that was once located in a tier of its own within the Mountain West.
An 11-win push in 2015 — the program’s first double-digit-win season since 1987 — was highlighted by Pumphrey’s play. The then-junior rushed for 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns on 306 carries and is poised to strip Faulk of his record(s). Pumphrey needs only 318 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns on the ground, and two more 100-yard rushing contests in 2016 to sit in hallowed territory.
The versatile back has earned the praise of his offensive line. He has been trusted by Long and the coaching staff for three seasons. Perhaps the most significant lifeline for Pumphrey, though, has been his three-year-old daughter, Maliya.
“She’s my biggest motivation. She’s the one that pushes me,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I just think of her whenever there’s a negative moment and try to make it positive.”
Pumphrey’s passion rises on game day. There’s an uptick in motivation when he’s on the field, and an even bigger incentive to put six on the scoreboard for the Aztecs.
“I know exactly where she sits,” he said of Maliya. “And I point at her every time I score.”
November 2, 2012 remains a vivid memory in the eyes of Pumphrey. The birth of his daughter has taught the Nevada product a few life lessons; one of them may have played a factor in his decision to play out his final season at San Diego State. For all the adjectives used to describe Pumphrey’s play on the field, there’s one that’s prohibited when judging him: selfish.
“It changed my life a lot, and (assistant) coach (Hunkie) Cooper helped me and mentored me, because he was in the same situation I was in when he was my age,” Pumphrey said. “He told me to be there for her and it’s no longer just me, it’s the two of us now. That’s the biggest thing, that you can’t be selfish being a father.”
Selfish, Pumphrey is not. He’s returning to wreak more havoc in the Mountain West and stamp the envelope on one hell of a career.