Donnel Pumphrey stands tall among all-time rushers

When FBS recruiters visited Las Vegas to evaluate tailback Donnel Pumphrey in 2012, they told then-Canyon Springs High School coach Hunkie Cooper the same things.

"He's a really good football player," they would say. "But he's too small, and he'll never hold up."

But Cooper, who is now in his second season as San Diego State's receivers coach, believed he knew what a good football player looked like, regardless of his size. At 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Cooper played 13 seasons in the Arena Football League and was voted one of the league's greatest players.

Cooper also coached former Oklahoma star DeMarco Murray as an assistant coach at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, and he believed Pumphrey, despite his 5-foot-9, 175-pound frame, was even better than Murray.

But after several coaches from the Big 12 and Pac-12 declined to offer Pumphrey a scholarship, Cooper called San Diego State offensive coordinator/running backs coach Jeff Horton, who was one of his position coaches at UNLV in 1989-90.

"Coach Horton is like a father figure to me," Cooper said. "I told him Pump was one of the best players I'd ever coached and he had an upside. Coach Horton agreed to take him, and the rest is history."

On Saturday, Pumphrey will try to make history by becoming the all-time leading rusher in the FBS. He needs 108 yards against Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl presented by Geico (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) to break former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne's FBS career record of 6,397 yards.

"It would mean a lot to break the record because of all the work my team put in," Pumphrey said. "It would mean a lot to have my name at the top. It's a great honor."

Heisman Trophy winners Archie Griffin, Herschel Walker, Charles White, Tony Dorsett and Ricky Williams were among the legendary players Pumphrey passed this season on the FBS rushing list.

"I think it hit when I passed Tony Dorsett," Pumphrey said. "That's a legend right there. I never thought I'd be in the same position with those guys."

Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner, actually rushed for 7,125 yards on 1,220 carries in 47 games with the Badgers from 1996 to 1999, but the NCAA didn't begin including statistics from postseason games in its official records until 2002. Dayne ran for a whopping 728 yards combined in four bowl games.

Entering Saturday's game against the Cougars, Pumphrey has gained 6,290 yards on 1,040 carries in 53 games. Dayne averaged 5.8 yards per carry during his four-year college career; Pumphrey has averaged 6.0.

In fact, Pumphrey would actually rank No. 3 in career rushing if postseason statistics were included for all players. He needs 237 yards against Houston to move past Dorsett for the No. 2 spot behind Dayne; Dorsett gained 6,526 yards at Pitt from 1973 to 1976, including bowl games.

"Did I know he'd be in the top two to ever play in the FBS?" Cooper asked. "No. Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and Tony Dorsett, those are my guys. When I heard those names roll off the list, I knew Pump was special. He's the real deal."

It's not like Pumphrey has anything left to prove. He is the only player in FBS history to have 5,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in his career, and he's first among active players with 7,374 all-purpose yards, 61 rushing touchdowns and 33 100-yard games.

What was even more impressive the past four seasons was Pumphrey's durability, especially considering his smallish size. He had at least 275 carries in each of the past three seasons and seemed to get better late in the game.

"I try to make guys miss as much as possible," Pumphrey said. "When it's time to go down, it's time to go down. I don't try to drag guys too far. My offensive line has done a great job, and I've had some really good fullbacks."

This season, Pumphrey averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the first quarter and 7.7 in the fourth. He averaged 5.2 yards on first down and 8.9 on third.

"That's the way he's trained," Cooper said. "It's his football IQ. He might run a zone play in the first quarter and then run it in the second quarter the other way, because he saw something others would never see. Guys aren't going to hit him flush. His film study, his vision and his natural ability aren't going to allow guys to hit him square."

Colorado State coach Mike Bobo, whose Rams held Pumphrey to a season-low 53 yards on 18 carries in a 63-31 win over the Aztecs on Nov. 26, said he's among the best runners he has seen. Bobo coached Los Angeles Rams tailback Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb as Georgia's offensive coordinator.

"He can run inside and out," Bobo said. "He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's physical and can break one outside and take it to the house. He's not very big, but they run power-O with him. He's an I-formation back and gets 30 carries a game. I think he's a competitor, and he loves ball. He runs like it."

Breaking Dayne's record in his hometown, with much of his family and many of his friends watching, would be a fitting end to Pumphrey's college career.

"It would mean a lot for him," Cooper said. "A lot of people knew this kid had talent in Pop Warner leagues and high school. It would be great for him to do it in front of a lot of people who have been instrumental in his life, especially his mother and his daughter."