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David Montgomery takes first baby step on Matt Forte path of excellence

It’s only one preseason game, but the rookie running back looks like the versatile fit for Matt Nagy’s offense the Bears were looking for.

Bears rookie running back David Montgomery (32) celebrates with teammates after scoring on a seven-yard run in the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night in the Bears’ preseason opener at Soldier Field.
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David Montgomery’s most glaring rookie mistake Thursday night was doing his postgame interview before he showered. Eventually he’ll learn that when you’re the star of the show, you take your time, wait for the media scrum to build and the television camera operators to jockey for position, shower, dry off, saunter back to your locker, dress in silence, fix your collar, put on your watch, then your necklace, check your phone one last time and dramatically turn to face the waiting throng.

The rookie running back almost literally was not ready for the spotlight after an impressive debut in the Bears’ 23-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the preseason opener at Soldier Field. He actually winced when a TV cameraman turned a camera light on as Montgomery turned to talk to reporters.

Montgomery, 22, may or may not get the star-player postgame routine down — he’s a pretty humble, grounded, low-key kid who looks like he was raised right, often referring to words of wisdom his mom gave him.

But on the field, Montgomery already is on pace to be everything the Bears hoped for. Even after 10 training camp practices and 13 preseason snaps, it’s pretty clear Montgomery indeed is a better fit for Matt Nagy’s offense than predecessor Jordan Howard. The loftier goals of becoming Nagy’s Kareem Hunt and approaching if not matching Matt Forte’s consummate running back production are still in play.

The response to Montgomery’s performance after the third-round pick from Iowa State had six touches against the Panthers told you all you need to know about how badly Bears fans want this to work out. Montgomery rushed for 16 yards on three carries, including a seven-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He also gained 30 yards on three receptions, including a 23-yard gain on a screen pass on first-and-10.

Everybody noticed. “Super well-rounded back,” guard Ted Larsen said. “Runs hard. Quiet. Works hard. You love to see that.”

That’s a spot-on appraisal of Forte at a similar stage of development in 2008. Yes, it’s early. Montgomery still has to prove he can be as effective in regular-season games against a first-team defense. But the similarities between Montgomery and Forte are pretty obvious. So many stars have to align to have the career that Forte had with the Bears, but Montgomery has the traits to get there if everything else falls into place.

“Montgomery is the quintessential Chicago Bear running back,” said Bears’ director of college scouting Mark Sadowski — a Chicago native — at the Bears100 convention. “He’s played in the elements. His vision. His ability to make you miss. His ability to break tackles — he’s a perfect fit to have him on the field the whole time.

“We were all excited that he was still there [in the third round of the draft]. Ryan [Pace] has a philosophy — if we want somebody, let’s get aggressive. Let’s go get him. We knew he was a perfect fit. We all liked him. Coach [Nagy] loved him. We went and got him.”

That consensus is similar to the Bears’ pursuit of Forte in the 2008 draft. The Bears were thrilled to get the Tulane product in the second round, 44th overall.

“It was obvious. It was a no-brainer. It was just a matter of, ‘Is he going to be there?,’ former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said in 2014. “We had our choice [of Ray Rice or Forte] and our coaches all liked him. Ron Turner, our coordinator at the time, really liked Forte. And Tim Spencer [the running backs coach] really liked Matt as well. They said he would be an ideal fit in our scheme. And our area scout, Chris Ballard [now the GM of the Colts] really liked him as well.

“So there was no negativity. Usually when you’re evaluating players, you have three, four or five opinions … you get somebody being the naysayer or not as high on the player. But not in Matt’s case. Practically across the board, everybody really liked him, saw him as a great fit and loved to have him on our team.”

As for Montgomery, he was typically humble — grateful for an opportunity others don’t get — but also confident after his debut. Asked about the increased “speed of the game” in the NFL, he said, “I felt it, but I obviously got adjusted to it, and just kind of went with the flow.”

And Montgomery knows, as Nagy said in tempering his own enthusiasm for Montgomery’s performance, that he has a long way to go.

“Enough isn’t enough for me,” Montgomery said. “We just have to go back to work tomorrow and fix things I didn’t do well and try to get better.”

Early in training camp, Montgomery said he was eager “to show the team what I can do.” But in his mind, 13 snaps and six touches didn’t come close to accomplishing that.

“Not to the brink of where I know I can reach — the potential that I know I have within myself,” Montgomery said. “I think I didn’t show enough. I stopped short a little, so I’m ready to go back to work and get ready for the next game.”