On the first handoff he took from quarterback Justin Fields on Sunday, Khalil Herbert broke to his left, darted around a big Jason Peters block and kept charging forward even as a Las Vegas Raiders defender tried to pull him down by his leg.
The 11-yard run started the type of day the rookie dreamed about when the Chicago Bears drafted him in the sixth round in May.
Despite joining a crowded running backs room that included David Montgomery, Damien Williams and Tarik Cohen, Herbert told himself to work as if he would be needed at some point this season. When he got his opportunity in Week 5 because of Montgomery and Cohen’s knee injuries, Herbert came through with 18 carries for 75 yards in a 20-9 victory.
Now the Bears could need even more from Herbert on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field.
The Bears placed Williams, who had 16 carries for 64 yards and a touchdown against the Raiders, on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday after he tested positive for the virus. Montgomery remains on injured reserve with a left knee sprain, and Cohen still hasn’t returned from a torn ACL in his right knee last season.
“Every day I come in here, I’ve got to be ready to go,” Herbert said. “I didn’t know when the playing time would come. It came earlier than I thought. But those guys did a great job of always keeping my mind going, keeping me mentally in tune and keeping me ready to go.”
Over the first four games, Herbert appeared on special teams, including nine kickoff returns for 254 yards, and said he did mental reps on offense to stay prepared for when he got a chance. He had three carries in the Week 4 victory against the Detroit Lions after Montgomery was injured.
Herbert said he wasn’t nervous knowing he would have a greater role, noting Montgomery and Williams, who are in their third and seventh seasons, respectively, helped him prepare. But it did require a mental adjustment to the game speed, which he said is “a lot different than the preseason.”
Bears coach Matt Nagy thought Herbert handled the opportunity well.
“You saw some really good times where he hit that zone and he stuck that right or left foot in the ground, planted it, and he went north and south and got 7, 8 yards every time,” Nagy said. “I like his vision. I like his patience. I also like his toughness, and you guys see it when he’s returning kickoffs. He’s smooth, and people bounce off him, so he’s got good contact balance.”
Nagy didn’t speak with the media Thursday before practice to shed light on whether Williams’ status is in question for Sunday. If Williams is vaccinated, he potentially could return before the game if he returns two negative PCR tests and is asymptomatic. Unvaccinated players who test positive must remain out 10 days.
Against the Raiders, the Bears liked the balance they found between Williams and Herbert. On their second touchdown drive, Herbert had five carries for 25 yards, and Williams had four carries for 24 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown run.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said the flow of the game and how many hits a player takes help determine how many carries each running back gets.
“There’s definitely constant communication on the sideline with (running backs coach Michael) Pitre — ‘When’s the time for the next one?’ ” Lazor said. “Sometimes on the headset as coaches we talk about who should get this one, but sometimes it’s just, ‘Hey, Damien just took this many hits. He needs a blow.’ So it just rolls. And then some plays obviously are planned specifically for a guy because it’s something that he’s good at. So it was just the flow of the game.”
Pitre and Fields have lauded the work Herbert puts in to get ready for those opportunities.
Fields said every time he pulls up to Halas Hall, Herbert is there doing work. Herbert said he usually arrives by 6:30-6:45 a.m. to get treatment, go in the hot or cold tubs or watch film.
“Since Day 1, Khalil’s come to work,” Fields said. “I feel like he’s treated this whole process like a veteran. … In the morning, he’s here early. He really takes his work seriously. He’s a hard worker in the weight room. After practice, he’s always out there doing extra little moves or on the Jugs machine.”
Herbert thinks his five years in college — four at Kansas and his final year at Virginia Tech — helped him to reflect on what he needed to do to be successful. As a fifth-year transfer at Virginia Tech, he had only online classes — requiring schoolwork about three days a week — so was able to focus on football “pretty much all day.”
He rushed for 1,204 yards and eight touchdowns, had 10 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown and returned 16 kickoffs for 430 yards in his only season with the Hokies.
When the Bears drafted Herbert, general manager Ryan Pace noted the versatility he brought to the team, not knowing the Bears would need his skills as a running back by Week 5 of his rookie season.
Herbert understands he still has a lot to prove, continuing Sunday against a Packers defense that ranks 11th with 102 rushing yards allowed per game.
“It’s just working,” Herbert said. “Coming here every day with that humble mindset, coming in ready to work, learning, taking in everything, trying to absorb as much as I can from the older guys and coaches.
“I’ve still got a lot to prove, still got a lot to fix, still got a lot to work on.”
Injury update: Wide receiver Allen Robinson (ankle), outside linebacker Khalil Mack (foot), defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (groin), tight end J.P. Holtz (quad) and inside linebacker Caleb Johnson (knee) did not practice Thursday.