In 2016, the year of the running back in college football, one small-school, diminutive ball carrier is quietly shredding records and making the case to be included in the Heisman Trophy discussion.
San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey racked up 2000+ scrimmage yards and 20 touchdown seasons in both 2014 and 2015, and is now within 500 yards of the top-10 all-time collegiate rushing leader board.
Can he overcome his relative lack of size and succeed at the NFL level?
Pumphrey In 2016
Through three games, Pumphrey leads the nation in rushing yards (599), is tied for third in rushing TDs (7), and is fourth in total scrimmage yards (666). According to Sports Reference there have been just four RBs to accumulate at least 500 yards rushing and 7 rushing TDs in a team’s first three games since 2000:
Statistical thresholds are useful in gauging a potential range of outcomes for a prospect, but should not be used as an end-all in the analysis process. That being said, Pumphrey finds himself in elite company by this measure.
RB market share is an excellent method for measuring workhorse ability. Below is a table showing market share metrics for Pumphrey, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette:
While McCaffrey is clearly the best receiver and has handled the largest carry workload out of the bunch thus far, Pumphrey has commanded a larger share of his team’s rushing yardage. Pumphrey has also been a consistent contributor throughout his collegiate career.
Spanning His Career
With back-to-back 2000+ yards from scrimmage season in 2014 and 2015, and 20 total TDs in both years, Pumphrey has been a true statistical wonder over the course of his collegiate career. Only eight players since 2000 have hit the 4,500 yards rushing mark with 50 or more rushing TDs since 2000:
Eye-popping statistics are great, but as we always do, it’s important to take strength of schedule into account when evaluating players from smaller schools.
Strength of Schedule and Size
The Mountain West Conference has not been known historically as a defensive powerhouse. In fact, all eight of the Aztecs’ conference opponents this season rank 55th or worse in points per game allowed, with five teams ranking 100th or worse.
Simply put, it’s tough to ignore the fact that Pumphrey will round out his illustrious career beating up on sub-par defenses, making any comparisons to McCaffrey (Pac-12) or Fournette (SEC) troublesome.
There’s also the issue of Pumphrey’s relative lack of size. Listed at 5-feet-9 inches, 180 pounds according to the Aztecs’ official roster, it’s fair to worry about his perceived draft value. The average height and weight of all running backs selected in the last three NFL drafts is 5-feet-11, 216 pounds.
Only 4 of the 67 RBs drafted during that time span weighed less than 200 pounds – Tyler Ervin, Marcus Murphy, Dri Archer and De’Anthony Thomas.
Pumphrey is small, has faced mostly below-average competition, and has not contributed to the kick return game, an area that Jon Moore identified as being an underrated aspect in prospect evaluation. Still, it’s difficult to ignore his statistical production.
Donnel Pumphrey may have a tough time cracking the top-100 in the 2017 Draft because of his lack of size, assuming he doesn’t absolutely crush his pre-draft workouts. If he does get drafted, he could carve out a situational role in the NFL where rotational backfields are growing in popularity, but history is against him.