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Khalil Herbert ready for his next chance as the Bears’ lead back

If Herbert plays Sunday the way he did the previous two weeks — with a physical style that belies his 5-9, 212-pound frame and a patience beyond his 23 years — the Bears will be forced to find some role for him.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Khalil Herbert celebrates his first career touchdown Sunday against the Packers.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For the first time in a long time, Khalil Herbert isn’t playing fantasy football this year.

“I’ve got a lot going on,” he said with a smile.

His friends, though, still play. They picked up the Bears’ rookie running back off the waiver wire last week and started him against the Packers. And they were pleased with the results — 19 carries for 97 yards and Herbert’s first career touchdown. They texted him afterward about their teams.

“They’ve been sending me screenshots,” he said.

They’ll keep Herbert on their fantasy rosters again Sunday, even though he’s facing the NFL’s best rushing defense.

After the Buccaneers game, Herbert’s role is anybody’s guess. Running back Damien Williams figures will regain his complementary role after he returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday following a 10-day absence, the minimum allowed an unvaccinated player who tests positive. And top running back David Montgomery is eligible to return off injured reserve next week after recovering from a sprained knee.

If Herbert plays Sunday the way he did the previous two weeks — with a physical style that belies his 5-9, 212-pound frame and a patience beyond his 23 years — the Bears will be forced to find some role for him. But they aren’t yet ready to entertain how much he will play — if at all — once Montgomery comes back. This week, running backs coach Michael Pitre would only say the Bears will figure it out “when those guys are back and we’re presented with having some really good players” on the roster.

“You’ve seen [Herbert] grow throughout camp — you’ve seen him grow throughout the first few weeks of the season, too,” guard Cody Whitehair said. “He’s really seeing the field well. He’s seeing the running lanes really well. So we’re really excited about him.”

It all still feels a bit surreal to the sixth-round pick. Two years ago, Herbert decided to stop playing at Kansas four games into his senior season, just in time to be eligible for a redshirt. He eventually left the school altogether, calling it a “business decision” after coming to believe he “wasn’t used properly.” He landed at Virginia Tech as a graduate transfer and became the centerpiece of the Hokies’ offense. His 1,182 rushing yards were fifth-most in the country, and his 7.7 yards per carry were fourth-most.

His transfer was controversial among Kansas fans. But it wound up being the best thing he’s ever done. He has thought about it the last few weeks while looking at Snapchat, which shows him photos of what he was doing at this time last year.

“I play that what-if game a lot, too: What if I stayed? What if I didn’t?” he said. “[Virginia Tech] really put me in a position to be where I am right now and helped me out a lot. It’s the biggest blessing, I feel like — going there and doing what I did.”

The Bears drafted Herbert to return kicks. But they were impressed by his running style in camp, marked by a willingness to plow forward but also cut the run back when he sees a hole.

“He’s a really quick decision-maker,” coach Matt Nagy said. “So when he makes decisions and sticks a foot in the ground and hits it with that low-contact balance, he’s hard to bring down.”

The Buccaneers bring rushers down better than any other team in the league. Herbert leans on the mantra used in the Bears’ running back room: “Famine, famine, feast.” Little runs beget longer ones.

“His confidence is going to grow every day, every snap he gets,” Nagy said. “And I just love his demeanor. He’s a team player. Not really vocal or loud or anything like that. But he’s just a really good running back.”