LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Khalil Herbert’s name barely registered on draft weekend.
Selected by the Bears with the 217th overall pick in the sixth round out of Virginia Tech, Herbert spent more time during his introductory news conference discussing how he was born with six toes on his left foot and 12 fingers — two have been removed — than what his role would be for the Bears.
It seemed simple.
Herbert played the role of standout rusher last year for the Hokies (1,183 yards and eight touchdowns) and for Kansas from 2016 to 2019 (35 career games, 1,735 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns), but the Bears appeared set at the position with David Montgomery and veteran Damien Williams — not to mention Tarik Cohen, who is recovering from a torn ACL.
No, the Bears said they drafted Herbert primarily to help in the kickoff return game.
Except, Herbert’s rookie contributions of late have reached far beyond special teams.
With Montgomery on injured reserve with a sprained knee since Week 5 and Williams battling thigh and knee injuries as well as a spell on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Herbert has emerged as Chicago’s feature back, grinding out tough yards at an ultra-impressive clip.
“He prepares like a pro. He takes advantage of the opportunity. He’s not afraid to ask questions. And most importantly, he’s having fun playing football,” Bears running backs coach Michael Pitre said last week. “I think all those things combined and just how he works, it’s created a great opportunity for him to step in and help this football team.”
Since the Bears’ 20-9 Week 5 victory over the Raiders, Herbert has rushed for 344 yards — fourth most in the league over that span — and averaged 4.41 yards per carry. His 78 rushing attempts are second to only Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry.
“I really feel like the game has begun to slow down for me,” Herbert said.
Sometimes it’s easy to confuse Herbert for Montgomery. Both run with a low center of gravity that allows them to explode through holes on the offensive line. At 5-foot-9, 212 pounds, Herbert has proved difficult to tackle in the open field and in tight spaces near the line of scrimmage.
“I love that Herbert is a really quick decision-maker so when he makes decisions and sticks a foot in the ground, hits it with that low-contact balance he’s hard to bring down,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “So there’s not a lot of negative yards which is important. And so that combined with probably his confidence is going to grow every day every snap he gets. 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.”
“Khalil is just a guy who has natural vision, but it’s all set up with the other 10 guys on the field doing their jobs, which allows him to go do his job,” Pitre said. “He has a very good feel for our scheme, [and] what we do. And the offensive line, tight ends, receivers, all those guys are doing a great job blocking their tails off. It makes it really easy for him to be able to do his job.”
Montgomery’s return is inevitable. Herbert might not receive the bulk of the touches for much longer, but the experience gained in this stretch has been invaluable.
“Khalil can do it all,” Bears center Sam Mustipher said. “Just the way he runs behind his pads, his vision, his ability to explode through contact, his ability to understand his assignments. He just runs really hard.”
Second-year tight end Cole Kmet summed it up best.
“Khalil has been awesome since he came in … just awesome,” he said.