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For running back Donnel Pumphrey, the long road to making the Eagles begins with staying healthy

Donnel Pumphrey is facing an uphill battle to make the Eagles this summer. He knows that. But he feels that if he can avoid the hamstring issues that sidetracked him the last two years, "the rest will take care of itself."

Eagles running back Donnel Pumphrey, pictured during training camp in 2017, is in a make or break year. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Eagles running back Donnel Pumphrey, pictured during training camp in 2017, is in a make or break year. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)Read more

The Eagles don’t put out a depth chart during OTAs, but if they did, Donnel Pumphrey would be listed seventh among the seven running backs currently on the team’s 90-player spring roster.

This isn’t news to Pumphrey. Released by the Eagles prior to last season before eventually being re-signed to their practice squad, the 2017 fourth-round pick knows he’s facing an uphill battle to make the team.

“This is one of those times where it’s win or go home,’’ Pumphrey admitted earlier this week following one of the Eagles’ OTA practice sessions. “If this year doesn’t pan out, I’ll likely have to move on with my life. That’s where I’m at. But I intend to give it my all and see what happens.’’

Two years ago, failure wasn’t something Pumphrey gave a great deal of thought to. Despite his diminutive size – he’s just 5-8 and 185 pounds soaking wet – he broke the FBS rushing record at San Diego State with 6,405 yards.

He was confident he could play at the next level. So were the Eagles. Vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas was effusive in his praise of Pumphrey after they selected him.

“Lightening feet, great feet and hands,’’ Douglas said. “And don’t let the size fool you. This guy, he’s a little dog who thinks he’s a big dog, and he plays that way. I love the way he plays.’’

One thing that impressed Douglas and other scouts about Pumphrey, besides his incredible production, was that, despite his size, he never got hurt. He played in 54 straight games at San Diego State and averaged 311 carries his last three seasons there.

But Pumphrey wasn’t so lucky after joining the Eagles. He injured his hamstring early in his first training camp with the team. He played in all four of the team’s preseason games, but wasn’t anywhere close to 100 percent. He averaged just 1.9 yards per carry and 5.5 yards per catch that summer. His longest run was five yards.

Still, Pumphrey made the team as one of five running backs on their season-opening roster, along with LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement. But a week into the season, the Eagles put him on injured reserve, where he spent the rest of the season, even though the hamstring was completely healed by mid-October.

Last summer, he injured his hamstring again. This time, it kept him out of the Eagles’ first three preseason games. He played in the final preseason game against the Jets, but had just four touches.

To no one’s surprise, including Pumphrey, the Eagles ended up releasing him. He spent three weeks on the Detroit Lions’ practice squad but was released by them as well. In late October, the Eagles signed him to their practice squad, where he spent the season.

Being a fourth-round pick typically will buy you a one-year grace period, but usually not two. There’s an old saying in sports that you can’t make the club in the tub. Pumphrey found that out firsthand last summer.

“I had only played in one preseason game,’’ he said. “At this level, if you continue to get hurt, they’re going to move on and give other guys an opportunity.’’

Pumphrey understands that to have any chance of making the Eagles this summer, he has to stay healthy. Even then, it’s going to be difficult, given the additions of Jordan Howard and second-round pick Miles Sanders.

“I’ve been trying to do a better job of taking care of my body,’’ he said. “Acupuncture, stretching longer. I have a different stretch routine before practice now, as well as after practice. It’s been working so far.

“Last year, after a week or two of OTAs, I already was dealing with a hamstring strain. So, so far, the routine is working.’’

Before reporting to the NovaCare Complex in mid-April, Pumphrey spent the better part of two months in San Diego working out with Darren Sproles.

“Golden Tate was out there, Drew Brees,’’ he said. “They have this crazy circuit (workout). You try to keep up with them and you end up dead, and there’s Darren at the end, strong as ever, while I’m bent over puking. He killed me. But it prepared me for OTAs.’’

Pumphrey said he plans to return to San Diego during the Eagles’ five-week break before the start of training camp to continue training with Sproles.

Sproles, who is three weeks shy of his 36th birthday, currently is a free agent. It’s assumed that he has no plans to play again, but he has yet to officially announce his retirement.

“He just trains and plays golf,’’ Pumphrey said with a smile.

Pumphrey was a star in high school in Las Vegas,and he was a star at San Diego State. His confidence never was tested, until last year, when he was cut by not one, but two teams, and languished on the Eagles’ practice squad.

“I never really doubted myself, but last year was a tough year for me,’’ he admitted. “I got down on myself, and you start to wonder, maybe football wasn’t for me.

“Coming into this year, I have a totally different mentality. I’m not doubting myself at all. I feel this could be the year for me. If I stay healthy, the rest will take care of itself.’’

There are a lot of people out there who think that, healthy or not, Pumphrey just isn’t good enough to play in the NFL. Maybe they’re right and maybe they’re not.

Pumphrey obviously thinks they’re wrong. But even as he chases his dream, he also has begun to consider alternatives in the event that dream dies.

“If it doesn’t work, I’ll go back and finish school,’’ he said. He is just a semester short of a degree in social science.

“I plan on getting my masters as well and hopefully going into coaching,’’ he said. “I feel I have a good football IQ. It’s just a matter of getting an opportunity. But hopefully, I can put that off for a while.’’