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Bears rookie RB Khalil Herbert in spotlight vs. Packers after Damien Williams exits

Williams tested positive for the coronavirus and is unlikely to be available Sunday against the Packers. That means a sixth-round pick gets another chance to prove he belongs.

Bears RB Khalil Herbert ran for 75 yards on 18 carries in the win over the Raiders.
Bears RB Khalil Herbert ran for 75 yards on 18 carries in the win over the Raiders.
David Becker/AP

The Bears, preparing to face the Packers, are down to their third-string running back after Damien Williams tested positive for the coronavirus. Williams was put on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, and the chances of him being available Sunday are extremely low.

If Williams is vaccinated — which is not publicly known — he’ll need to test negative twice, 24 hours apart, before kickoff to be cleared to play. If he’s unvaccinated, he will be out a minimum of 10 days, which means the soonest he’d be eligible to return would be the day before the Bears face the Buccaneers on Oct. 24.

Teams aren’t allowed to disclose a player’s vaccination status. Reporters haven’t asked Williams about it since June, when he said he was unvaccinated.

The Bears haven’t yet had a player miss a game under the NFL’s COVID-19 policy this season. Williams’ hiatus comes at a time when the Bears are already playing without injured starter David Montgomery, who will miss at least the next two games because of a sprained knee.

So who steps into the spotlight as their primary running back? Khalil Herbert, a rookie. The Bears are high on him after he ran for 75 yards on 18 carries in last week’s victory over the Raiders — but that’s just one game.

“I’ve still got a lot to prove, still got a lot to fix, still got a lot to work on,” Herbert said Thursday.

The Bears drafted him in the sixth round this spring — the 217th selection overall and 15th among running backs. He began his college career at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech as a fifth-year senior. Last year, he ran for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns on 155 carries.

The Bears didn’t necessarily plan to give Herbert so many carries against the Raiders, especially with Williams, a seven-year veteran, in the starting spot, but Herbert made a strong case early. He ran for 11 yards on his first rush and added runs of nine, seven and eight yards in the second quarter. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry in the first half and went all afternoon without losing a yard.

“Sometimes with the backs, it’s the flow of the game and how many hits they’re taking,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “And then some plays, obviously, are planned specifically for a guy because it’s something that he’s good at.”

Herbert initially was a kick returner, then moved to offense full-time when Montgomery went down. Ryan Nall (five carries in three seasons) is the only other healthy running back on the active roster. The Bears also have Artavis Pierce on the practice squad.

Although he was first penciled in for special teams, Herbert has been fully engrossed in learning the offense since he reported for rookie minicamp in May. He quickly became a favorite teammate of a fellow rookie, quarterback Justin Fields, who was impressed by his work ethic.

“He’s treated this whole process like a veteran,” Fields said. “Literally every time I pull up [to Halas Hall], he’s always here. After practice, he’s always out there doing extra little moves, or on the [pass-catching] machine.”

Now, Herbert and the Bears will find out the value of all that work. The team would rather not be in this situation, but it gives Herbert an opportunity to show he’s much more than a fringe player. And after advancing from the bottom end of the roster to being a key contributor last week, he deserves the shot.