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Donnel Pumphrey wants to make NFL little by little | Bob Ford

At 5-foot-8, the rookie running back faces an uphill climb with the Eagles. His confidence is anything but small.

With the exception of high school, college and the pros, no one has ever questioned whether Donnel Pumphrey was big enough to play the game of football.

"Oh, yes. I've been doubted at every level," said Pumphrey, who will drag another set of potential doubters around the field at the NovaCare Complex during OTAs this week.

Pumphrey started playing the game when he was six years old against cousins who were five years older, and that indoctrination was a good preview for his football challenges later in life. He played in an organized league at eight and had the brief pleasure of being evenly matched.

"I was probably normal size then, same as everybody else," Pumphrey said, "but that was about it."

The everybody-else portion of the football world kept growing while Pumphrey topped out at 5-foot-8 and 176 pounds. That's what the tape measure and scale reported at the NFL scouting combine earlier this year when the running back from San Diego State made his pitch to the assembled team representatives. Something clicked for the Eagles, apparently, who moved up in the fourth round of the draft to select Pumphrey.

Joe Douglas, the Eagles vice president of player personnel, said Pumphrey is "a little dog who thinks he is a big dog." His career numbers read that way. He gained 6,405 rushing yards in 54 college games, and gained another 1,039 on 99 receptions. According to Pro Football Focus, he led the nation in missed tackles, or eluded tackles, over the last three seasons. That's a healthy idea for someone his size.

"I try to play smart, know when to get out of bounds, when to get down," Pumphrey said. "Making guys miss, that's been a big help to my game."

Of course, making guys miss in the Mountain West Conference is not the same as avoiding them in the NFL, where there are fast and ill-tempered defenders who take great pleasure in informing opposing dogs of their actual size. If that were not the case, Pumphrey, who set the FBS rushing record as it is currently calculated, and was an absolute workhorse in doing so, would not have been the 12th running back taken in the draft.

Even the Eagles' decision to jump from the 139th pick to the 132nd to get Pumphrey, at the cost of a seventh-round selection, was tempered by faint praise. According to Howie Roseman, there had been a number of running backs in whom the Eagles were interested, but some of those went off the board in quick succession during the third and fourth rounds when six backs were taken in the space of 36 picks. He didn't come out and say they felt the need to grab somebody before they were all gone, but there was a tinge of that.

Pumphrey, if he perceived a lack of respect there, took it for what it was, just another day at the football field.

"Whatever role happens, I'm accepting it," he said. "I'm going to do what they ask me to, and when I take the field, I feel like the biggest player out there and nothing is going to stop me."

Even before the Eagles added to their depth at the position by signing LaGarrette Blount as a short-yardage banger last week, there was a question of whether a roster spot would be available for Pumphrey. He is projected to contribute in a similar fashion to Darren Sproles, but, at least for the coming season, so is Darren Sproles. There are three other running backs in the mix as well, and that's anticipating the departure of Ryan Mathews. Also looking for a roster spot are Byron Marshall, who appeared in three games last season; Wendell Smallwood, coming back from an MCL injury; and Corey Clement, an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin. If the Eagles keep four backs on the active roster, who stays?

The answer might be that the most versatile ones get the benefit of the doubt and that includes Pumphrey, who can run pass routes from the backfield, or line up in the slot, or go into motion to become a receiver. He can also return punts. Marshall Faulk, another decent runner from San Diego State, told Pumphrey that his key to sticking would be the multifaceted nature of his game.

"You have to showcase all your abilities, he told me," Pumphrey said. "I'm trying to showcase everything I can."

On film, Pumphrey is amazingly quick. Only three of the 26 running backs who were timed in the 40-yard dash at the combine were faster than his 4.48 seconds, but his quickness, particularly as he changes direction, is more impressive than his pure speed. At times, tackling him appears to resemble grabbing hold of smoke from a campfire.

Pumphrey wants to bulk up a little - the physical projection could be similar to that of Warrick Dunn, who played more than a decade at 5-9, 187 - but he is realistic about how far that can go, and very comfortable with where he is right now.

"I plan on getting bigger, but this is what got me to this level, 5-8 and a half," he said, adding the extra smidge of height just for accuracy. "I'm sure everyone looks at me [as too small], but when I hit that field, they can see what's up."

Staying up in the NFL, with so many looking to bring him down, will be the challenge, but Pumphrey has been playing against bigger guys for a long time. Whatever else changes in his football career, that one is very likely to remain the same.