Donnel Pumphrey wasn’t ready.
Not for the demands of an NFL training camp. Not for the tough love from running backs coach Duce Staley. He wasn’t ready, and that’s why he never took a snap as a rookie in the Eagles’ first Super Bowl season.
“Last year, me and [Duce] weren’t as good as we are now,” Pumphrey said Tuesday after the Eagles’ first OTA session. “I was taking a lot of criticism from him. I needed to look myself in the mirror, and just learn from him.”
Eagles position coaches are not allowed to talk to reporters at this time of year, but a source close to Staley affirmed Pumphrey’s depiction of their relationship’s evolution.
Pumphrey arrived in Philadelphia as a fourth-round draft pick, but with his baby face and high-school frame, he looked like the last kid picked at the playground. He was 5-foot-9, maybe; 177 pounds, perhaps. Nevertheless, he had been incredibly productive and durable in four seasons at San Diego State, and he flashed speed and soft hands during the Eagles’ short summertime camps.
He wasn’t the same player when training camp arrived. It wasn’t just his hands that were soft. So was his body; and, worse, his mind. That has changed since the season ended.
Pumphrey visited teammate Darren Sproles in San Diego for cross-fit-style training sessions that left Pumphrey retching into garbage cans. He now weighs 186 pounds, about the same as his training-camp weight last year but now sculpted, with wider shoulders, broader chest. thicker thighs.
Pumphrey also had a man-to-man talk with Staley a few weeks ago. He came away a better man than he was this time last year.
Pumphrey’s problem was he entered last preseason as the all-time rushing leader in FBS history and was sure he would make a splash in the NFL. He enters this preseason facing a crowded stable of backs and with the understanding that nothing in his past matters.
“I felt like, last year, I didn’t really have that same chip on my shoulder I had in college. It showed, once I look back at the film,” said Pumphrey, who averaged 1.9 yards on 26 preseason carries.
His greatest lesson?
“Taking care of your body, and taking advantage of all those opportunities. Really, in all of those preseason [games], I didn’t show up, whatsoever. And I have to play better,” he said. “Or my job will not be here.”
At this point, Pumphrey actually laughed. That’s a good thing. It shows that he’s comfortable with his reality. That he’s ready for the future.
Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character .
— Donnel Pumphrey Jr. (@Pumphrey6K) January 3, 2018
That he’s accountable for his past.
On to the playoffs baby , it’s been a great 2017 even though this season didn’t go as planned individually. I am forever grateful & blessed . Happy New Years to everyone , please be safe tonight & take a shot for me 😂 #2018HereICome
— Donnel Pumphrey Jr. (@Pumphrey6K) January 1, 2018
After he was drafted, Pumphrey quickly gained about 10 pounds of “bad weight. … Last year, I feel like I put on the weight too fast. Sometimes, injuries come with that.”
He battled calf and hamstring injuries throughout training camp. The Eagles placed him on injured reserve after Game 1 because of the hamstring, but he was healthy by October and league rules would have allowed him to return in November.
The Eagles weren’t interested. Other running backs had found favor in Staley’s eyes, even though Sproles was lost for the season in Game 3 and Wendell Smallwood had played himself out of a job. Corey Clement, a Glassboro native who went undrafted out of Wisconsin, was getting regular reps, and the Eagles had stolen disgruntled Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins. Pumphrey was an afterthought. Staley wasn’t interested in soothing his psyche.
His running backs need to be as tough in the meeting rooms as they are on the field. That’s what Staley and Pumphrey discussed at their exit interview when the season ended.
“It’s not about how they’re saying it; you just have to listen to the message,” Pumphrey said. “Just being able to be coachable. That’s where we took it, honestly, into this offseason.”
Accomplished veterans LeGarrette Blount and Sproles led the running-back group last year. There was no honeymoon for the kid. He struggled to learn the offense, which is especially demanding for running backs. Frequently, his feelings got hurt.
“Last year, I felt like I was the young ’un, always being picked on,” Pumphrey said. “It wasn’t that at all.”
No, it was just business. It is a hard business for hard men, and running backs have to be the hardest of them all.
To that end, Pumphrey actually lost 5 pounds after the season ended so he could rebuild his body the right way.
He visited Sproles in San Diego for five cross-fit-type training sessions. Sproles, who will turn 35 next month, is 5-6 and 190 pounds of bionic maniac. From him, Pumphrey learned what it takes for a little man to make it in a big man’s league.
“We’d be, like, lifting, and the trainers would give us a 10-minute break,” Pumphrey said. “And Darren would go over to the treadmill, and turn it up as fast as it would go, and sprint the entire rest time. It’s unreal. First day, I was yakkin’. And he’s still going, full reps.”
Sproles will not attend this OTA session — it’s voluntary — but Tuesday, Pumphrey looked a lot like Sproles. He hit holes fast and hard. He ran patterns crisply. He exploded into his kick returns.
Big deal. Pumphrey was a minicamp monster last year, too. This year, he said, will be different. He has become a hill trainer, like Sproles and Jerry Rice, and he’ll keep climbing those hills through the heat of summer to maintain his 4.48-second 40-yard dash speed as his weight climbs toward his training-camp goal of 190.
All the training will be meaningless if he wilts again when Staley starts riding him in the hot summer sun. The little guy entered the league with a lot of questions about whether he belonged.
“I feel like those questions are louder now,” Pumphrey said.
This year, he’s not quite so sensitive to them.