SAN DIEGO -- Drive east on Montezuma Road toward the back end of San Diego State's campus and you'll see Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphrey -- all 52 feet of him -- with giant "Pumphrey for Heisman" type above him on a banner hanging from a campus dorm.
It's impossible to miss.
San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey... the 52-foot version of him. Aztecs host Cal Saturday. pic.twitter.com/yBDFxJA6E5— Kevin Gemmell (@Kevin_Gemmell) September 6, 2016
The actual Pumphrey, however, stands 5-9. He is actually quite easy to overlook, especially when he vanishes into the interior line and somehow squirts out 15 yards down the field.
"The blocking schemes don't always come out the way they are supposed to. But if there is a hole, he'll find it," San Diego State coach Rocky Long said.
Since the start of the 2013 season, no active FBS running back has more rushing yards (4,370) or rushing touchdowns (46) than Pumphrey. Yet despite that production, it'll be an uphill battle for him to get Heisman looks because: 1) the field is stacked with running backs from Power-5 programs such as Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, Oregon's Royce Freeman, LSU's Leonard Fournette and Florida State's Dalvin Cook and 2) the Group of 5 Aztecs (1-0) don't play a robust enough schedule to elevate Pumphrey to the national stage.
That's what makes Saturday's showdown against California (1-0) so significant. The Golden Bears are the only Power 5 team on SDSU's docket for 2016, so if the Aztecs want to be in the conversation for a New Year's 6 bowl game, they'll have to run the table. And if Pumphrey wants even a dusting of Heisman attention, he's going to have to put up monster numbers against Cal.
Pumphrey should serve as a nice measuring stick for how far the Cal rush defense has come from Week 0 -- when they gave up 248 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground to Hawaii. Stopping the run is the bedrock principle of every defense, and Pumphrey is one of five backs who rushed for 1,000 yards last season that the Bears will face in 2016.
"Stopping the run is the most important thing to a defense," Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. "[Pumphrey] is a great blend of strength, speed and quickness. He's incredibly productive. All of the good things good running backs do, he does really well."
The Golden Bears were able to bottle up Pumphrey last season in Berkeley -- as much as one team can -- holding him to 85 rushing yards and no touchdowns in a 35-7 win. The Aztecs, who are riding an 11-game winning streak, remember that. They also got a good look at the Bears when they opened their season against the Rainbow Warriors in Australia.
"When I see Hawaii being able to run the ball the way they did, it excited me and it excites my offensive line," Pumphrey said. "That's what we have to do. We get after it with the ground attack. Seeing that makes me pumped up for this game."
The stakes aren’t nearly as high for the Bears -- though they are high enough for a team trying to get to the postseason for a second straight year. Quarterback Davis Webb looked strong against Hawaii, tossing four touchdowns and rushing for another -- giving the Bears reason to believe they can move the ball without top draft pick Jared Goff running the offense. Defensively, however, Dykes wasn't shy about voicing his concerns.
"Defensively, we weren't as good against the run as need to be," he said of his team's performance against Hawaii. "Clearly we have to improve."
Pumphrey will do everything he can to stay relevant in the Heisman conversation. It's not often a school like San Diego State even considers such things. The closest the Aztecs have come was when Marshall Faulk finished second in the voting in 1992. Pumphrey, by the way, is just 220 yards shy of breaking Faulk's all-time rushing record at the school.
"When we've got a Heisman candidate, that looks good for the offensive line," offensive guard Nico Siragusa said. "He's patient. Little backs usually just want to hit the outside, but he's a really physical back for his frame. I've never seen anything like it."