Philadelphia Eagles rookie Donnel Pumphrey says team wants to groom him as a punt returner
Philadelphia Eagles running back Donnel Pumphrey said he could be a "top-notch" punt returner one day. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
PHILADELPHIA — While most of the Eagles’ skill position players stretched on one side of the field before Monday’s training camp practice, fourth-round rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey crept backward near the opposite sideline with his head tilted toward a sky blanketed in clouds.
Then Pumphrey reached out his arms to snag a simulated punt, tucked the ball under his right arm and sped forward downfield.
It’s a scene Eagles fans might soon grow accustomed to seeing.
Pumphrey said Monday Eagles coaches are grooming him as a punt returner. The idea, Pumphrey explained, is that he’d be an option to step into the role if Darren Sproles suffers an injury this season and could also take over as a full-time punt returner once Sproles — who, at 34, has suggested he could be entering his final NFL season — retires.
“That’s why they’re trying to keep me catching punts every day,” Pumphrey said, “because that’s probably a role I’ll eventually play.”
That leaves punt returning as another task on Pumphrey’s full slate and an additional way the 5-foot-8 running back can emulated Sproles, one of his childhood idols. Pumphrey said he grew up watching Sproles find success as an undersized running back and felt encouraged about his own football future.
This offseason, including the first day of training camp Monday, Pumphrey has moved around the Birds’ offense as a shifty and versatile option, just like Sproles does. Pumphrey took carries Monday, caught passes out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver on several plays, offering Eagles coaches a flexible piece to make use of in the game plan.
Sproles does all that, too, and he’s a two-time Pro Bowl punt returner. So, Pumphrey believes he can duplicate the veteran’s success in the role.
But Pumphrey never returned punts or kicks during his four years at San Diego State, where coaches built an offense around his production in the running game. Pumphrey said the Aztecs didn’t want to risk an injury to their offensive star by playing him on special teams, so aside from January’s Senior Bowl, he hasn’t fielded punts in a competitive game since high school.
Pumphrey said he isn’t worried, though. He fielded punts in practice throughout his college career and has done the same with the Eagles since he arrived in Philadelphia this spring as fourth-round draft pick eager to carve out a role in the NFL.
Plus, Pumphrey knows he can lean on Sproles as a mentor.
“I feel like I can be a top-notch returner,” Pumphrey said. “I’m not going to say I could be at the level [Sproles] is at, but I feel like I could one day get there.”
Philadelphia Eagles coverage on PennLive