David Montgomery wasn’t always a star running back. He wasn’t always someone his team, family, and friends could impeccably rely on. In fact, given a difficult upbringing in Cincinnati, and after being sparsely recruited out of high school, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to wonder if Montgomery was going to sit in the position he sits in today. A place where he’s the feature back for a Super Bowl contender like the Bears. A role he’s meticulously prepared for over the past few years. A situation that was always going to fit him like a glove.
There aren’t many immediate impact talents in the third round of the NFL Draft. After the first round, there aren’t many immediate impact players in drafts altogether. Most running backs drafted as late as Montgomery have a historical starting hit rate of roughly 16 percent. In a modern NFL where the position itself has been steadily devalued — top kickers make almost the same amount of money as top running backs — the chance for any top backfield member to make his mark is lessened.
If there’s anyone to flip this narrative on its head, it’s Montgomery. If there’s anyone suited to make the Bears continue to glow over their decision to trade up for a running back, it’s Montgomery.
Historically speaking, no one does running back better than the Bears. No NFL franchise has a more impressive ledger of accomplished and unique focal point tailbacks than they do. At the tender age of 21, every aspect of Montgomery’s college career foreshadows him adding to the hallowed history.
As to what Montgomery can bring to the table for one of the league’s best teams right away, I spoke with Levi Stevenson in-depth — managing editor of SB Nation’s Iowa State arm of coverage, Wide Right & Natty Lite — to get a better perspective of the legend Montgomery built in college. A legend he seems destined to continue on the Chicago lakefront.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Montgomery was one of college football’s most productive running backs over the last two years. How will he, versatile profile and all, fit in the Bears’ offense? What are his greatest strengths, and how will they factor into his adjustment to the NFL?
Levi Stevenson: When you watch Montgomery’s college tape, a few things jump right off the screen, especially his power and elusiveness. Those extremely important aspects of his game should help him carve out a major role with the Bears. But it’s his excellent vision and patience that are key to getting off to a great NFL start.
In college, Montgomery ran behind a Cyclones offensive line that was below average on its best day, and was forced to create most of his yardage on his own. How bad was it up front? Almost 80 percent of Montgomery’s rushing yards in the last two seasons came after first contact. On average, he saw first contact only 0.9 yards past the line of scrimmage, and he still averaged almost five yards-per-carry. Like many backs, if you give Montgomery space and allow him to deal with linebackers first instead of defensive linemen, he becomes a significantly more dangerous weapon. Fortunately, the Bears have a solid offensive line of which should able to give him the support he needs.
Montgomery is difficult to bring down alone, and essentially impossible to stop without him falling forward for extra yards. In college, it was common to see him staying patient behind his line, much like the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell does or Edgerrin James once did, then burst through the hole. If a hole never opened, he was adept at seeing a cutback lane or reversing field entirely, often resulting in him making multiple defenders miss on the way to a 15-plus yard gain.
Beyond his otherworldly balance allowing him to break and elude tackles that no mortal human has any business avoiding, Montgomery’s a great pass-catcher, and a physical pass blocker. Iowa State’s head coach Matt Campbell constantly referred to him as one of the best route-runners on the team. He’s the definition of a four-down, bell-cow back that can shoulder a heavy load, and help his quarterback out both in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield.
The only reasonable knock on Montgomery is his top-end speed, but I think it’s blown out of proportion. Is he going to bust off a bunch of 50-plus yard runs like Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles? Probably not. However, I’m envisioning him becoming a first-down machine that consistently gets 5-10 yard carries on a regular basis, with 20-30 yarders sprinkled in here and there.
One other aspect to be appreciated but has gone under the radar so far is that Montgomery flat out doesn’t fumble the football. He lost two fumbles in his Cyclones career, with the first being an objectively bad call that should have resulted in him scoring a touchdown, and the second one being heavily disputed. Ball security is always his name of the game.
Montgomery wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school, and it took time for him to adjust to his college role. What was the Iowa State coaching staff’s thought process in bringing him along as a rarely featured freshman in 2016, to their focal point in 2018? How did he prove himself?
LS: Montgomery’s recruitment was interesting. A former dual-threat quarterback from Ohio, everybody saw him changing to running back at the college level, but not many coaches had the chance to see him at the pre-college camps he attended. Campbell, then Toledo’s coach, happened to see him, and called him the “single-best camp performer” he’s ever seen. Unfortunately, Toledo didn’t have a scholarship for him, but Campbell told Montgomery he’d “come back for him.” As soon as Campbell got to Ames, Iowa, the first call he made was to Montgomery, and the back was on campus a few months later.
For most of Montgomery’s freshman year, he sat behind Mike Warren, who ran for over 1,300 yards the previous season on his way to freshman All-American honors. By the last few games of the year, Montgomery had earned himself a 50-50 split of carries with Warren, and was showing significant promise. After this early divide, the rest is history.
In the second game of the 2017 season against Iowa, David had his coming-out party to the tune of 165 total yards and a touchdown, and one of the most ridiculous highlight reels you’ll see. Montgomery did Montgomery things and eventually set the Pro Football Focus record for forced missed tackles in a season by a huge margin. Naturally, he then took over the title of best running back in the Big 12. His final season in 2018 was even more kind to him, as he put up 1,216 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Montgomery played so well at the start of 2017 that he made it impossible to sit him on the bench, and he only improved from there.
Character is a big talking point with this Bears regime. By all accounts, as an Eagle Scout, Montgomery has a rational disposition to not only football, but life. How would you describe his fit in their locker room as someone that’s likely going to be highly relied upon immediately?
LS: Montgomery is genuinely one of the highest-character people I’ve ever seen. He comes from a rough background in Cincinnati, and he knew keeping himself out of trouble was going to be his best shot at making something of himself.
When Montgomery was in high school, his older brother was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. While he was in college, he would send money to his brother’s commissary account whenever he could scrape together a few dollars. The idea of leaving his brother behind wasn’t an option. It was something that never crossed his mind. Montgomery’s widely regarded by every coach and player that’s been around him as being one of the most genuine people they’ve ever seen.
How will Montgomery respond to the pressure of playing extensively for a Super Bowl contender from the get-go? How will he earn the trust and respect of superstars like Khalil Mack, and experienced playmakers such as Allen Robinson?
LS: Montgomery’s work ethic will speak for itself with the Bears. As legend goes, in the January following his freshman season, the Iowa State coaching staff was leaving the practice facility late on a Friday night. There they saw David out on the indoor practice field running through drills by himself. Eventually, a few more players joined him, and more and more followed. Soon, the entire team was spending their late Friday and Saturday nights in the off-season in the weight and film rooms. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories about him watching film at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning throughout what was supposed to be downtime.
For a program without a great culture in place before he came along, Montgomery’s contagious work ethic helped a program that had won eight total games in three seasons beforehand, to win eight games in consecutive seasons overnight. Ever since that moment on the indoor field, the Cyclones’ coaching staff has regularly credited him with single-handedly changing their culture. He’s why Iowa State is enjoying its most successful football era. His off-the-field contributions cannot be overstated.
Put yourself in Matt Nagy’s shoes with Montgomery and the Bears’ offensive weapons at your disposal. What’s the most optimal way to integrate him in Chicago’s scheme? What might hold him back? Ultimately, what’s his NFL ceiling?
LS: Montgomery is the consummate workhorse back that can stay on the field for all four downs. He can provide excellent pass-catching and blocking ability to help out Mitchell Trubisky. For my money, you can give him 100 percent of Jordan Howard’s carries and expect him to turn them into more yardage. On passing downs, he’s perfect for a delayed route out of the backfield where he can catch the ball and create by himself in the open field. His versatility should give Nagy virtually unlimited options to work with.
Montgomery’s lack of breakaway speed may limit his ability to turn 20-yard runs into 60-yard home runs, but it doesn’t affect him at all during those first 20 yards. He’s incredibly agile both in space and traffic, and should be able to create first downs frequently.
His NFL ceiling realistically looks a lot like Matt Forte’s. He’ll likely never be considered a top-five back, but he has a high floor, and is consistent enough to carve out a lengthy career.
Now that Montgomery moves onto the NFL, what’s one memory that most sticks out to you from his time in college? How may this apply to his professional life?
LS: There are so many stories about Montgomery’s character that it’s difficult to pick one. There’s a brief overview here, but my favorite is the friendship he developed with a local kid named Hunter Erb. Erb is a seven-year-old who was diagnosed with pulmonary vein stenosis, a serious heart condition.
Here’s a particularly moving excerpt from their story together:
”That boy keeps me going,” Montgomery said. “He’s so excited. He’s so happy. You know, he can’t do what all the other kids do, but he still smiles.”
During a December hospital visit, doctors had trouble finding a vein in Hunter’s arm to start an IV.
“After five pokes, David showed up,” Stephanie said.
Hunter: “You made it!”
Montgomery: “Of course, little buddy.”
It took six more pokes to start that IV, but Montgomery was there to hold Hunter’s hand.
“Hunter never cried again,” Stephanie said.
If this friendship wasn’t enough, here’s a photo of Montgomery helping with the clean-up of Marshalltown, Iowa after a tornado in 2018. (The lower-third graphic is mislabeled.)
Montgomery has a heart of gold, and he should have a seamless transition with the Bears in every way.
Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network, the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.