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Saturday Spotlight: Khalil Herbert

Throughout the 2021 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at running back Khalil Herbert.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Name: Khalil Herbert

Position: Running Back

Number: 24

Age: 23

Time with Bears: Rookie

The Past:

“Five years, that’s a lot of time and a lot of stuff can change and happen...it was kind of surreal.

Khalil Herbert was determined to get to this moment.

In an interview with the Chicago Bears’ video series Meet the Rookies, Herbert detailed the years since he wrote a letter. A letter to himself. The time since? It’s clear he’s been building on his game every year.

In 2016, Herbert chose the University of Kansas over offers from Appalachian State, Florida Atlantic, Fordham, and Georgia State. The three-star recruit from south Florida was commiting to a running back room which was rebuilt the year prior, featuring then-senior Ke’aun Kinner and then-sophomore Taylor Martin. Both topped Herbert in carries in 2016, but the rookie saw action as a true freshman. He played in 8 games with 3 starts, with 189 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns.

Wearing #10 at Kansas, his highlight play from his rookie year was this 66-yard burst through the hole for a touchdown against Memphis. He also scored a touchdown in Kansas’ upset victory over Texas that year.

With Kinner graduating, the starting running back role opened in 2017. Herbert seized the opportunity. He played in 11 games in his sophomore season, starting 6, with a career day against West Virginia where he found holes all over the field and was fed the ball 36 times for 291 yards. He was clearly a volume back in that game, where he just kept pounding until the defense let him through for huge gains. Herbert finished the season with 120 carries for 663 rushing yards. The aforementioned Martin still saw playing time as well, so Herbert couldn’t find the consistent volume in other contests that he was shown in that West Virginia game.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Kansas at Baylor Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Then Pooka Williams came. A 4-star recruit who had committed to Kansas long before, Williams came in and immediately saw major playing time. He had excellent moves, speed to burst through the hole, and strength to keep his feet moving through contact. Even with the departure of fellow running back Taylor Martin, the now-upper-classman Herbert was again splitting carries.

Herbert still found games to show his skill; the junior ran for 62 yards against Nichols, and 91 yards against Iowa State. One of his main highlights from 2018 came against Rutgers. He took a handoff, broke a tackle in the backfield, switched directions and rushed for a 59-yard touchdown in a blowout victory for the Jayhawks. Unfortunately, that was one of only two carries he saw that day.

On the year, Herbert found 113 carries, while Pooka Williams saw 161. Herbert had 499 rushing yards. Williams had 1,125. Herbert had 9 receptions. Williams had 33.

Just a few games into the following season, in 2019, Khalil Herbert left the Kansas football program. Head coach David Beaty had recently been let go, after a 6-42 record that left Kansas as a laughingstock in the college football ranks, and Herbert’s “business decision” is a case to point to why college athletes are always looking for a program to give them the best chance for success.

Success is exactly what Herbert had at Virginia Tech.

National rankings welcomed the graduate senior to their fifth-place mark with 1,204 rushing yards, and the Hokies found room all over for the future NFL running back. Herbert scored 8 touchdowns on the ground, and 1 through the air. His 208 rushing yards against Duke marked the most he had since that West Virginia game three years prior, and Herbert was establishing himself as a strong, well-rounded player.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 30 Senior Bowl Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Back to that letter.

“In 5 years, I’ll be in the NFL. Five years from now, God will have, and will still be, showing his greatness through me. I want to affect and touch peoples’ hearts in one way or another. Five years hopefully I’ll still be humble and give all the glory to God with the blessings he has given me.

I’ll be a successful man, that I know for sure.”

Then in April 2021.

“With the 217th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select Khalil Herbert. Running Back. Virginia Tech.”

The Present:

Herbert entered the season as the #3 back in the system, with the Bears moving on from former do-it-all player Cordarelle Patterson and moving Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce back to the practice squad. He’s found limited playing time thus far while starter David Montgomery and change-of-pace back Damien Williams are both healthy.

Still, when Williams was sidelined on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and Monty was placed on short-term IR with a knee injury, Herbert was elevated to starter with little time to prepare.

Luckily, he’s been preparing for the past few years.

In the first game following Monty’s injury against the Las Vegas Raiders, the rookie rushed for 75 yards on 18 carries. He followed that up with an impressive 97-yard performance against the Packers where he also scored a touchdown, followed by his first 100+ yard game against the Buccaneers. Despite the Bears losing 2 of 3 game during that stretch, Herbert was playing rock-solid football for a Bears squad which looked decimated by injuries to running backs and offensive linemen.

Against the 49ers, Herbert saw a career-high of 23 carries, although he was limited to just 72 rushing yards in a forgettable performance. He had been building up to something great, but rookies struggle at times and fellow rookie Justin Fields took charge of the headlines.

When Montgomery returned from IR in week 9 against the Steelers, Herbert settled back into his role as a third-string running back. He was limited to 4 carries for 13 yards.

Even still, the Bears can use Herbert in tandem with Montgomery, if they can just commit to running the ball.

The future:

Injuries and illnesses have played a large part in Herbert’s playing time thus far in his young NFL career. Even without David Montgomery and Damien Williams sidelined, Bears fans have to remember they have another running back still recovering from a devastating injury: Tarik Cohen. While Cohen had been a solid punt returner and not much else on offense before his torn ACL early in the 2020 season, he could be making a connection with Justin Fields as a check down option right now.

Instead, the Bears are intent on involving Herbert in their offensive plans moving forward.

It will be interesting to watch what the Bears do when Cohen does return; after all, he’s signed through 2023, although the dead money is survivable after this season. Herbert, meanwhile, is a Chicago Bear as long as they don’t move him to the practice squad, signed on a team-friendly deal through 2024. If he continues to develop into a pro version of the volume back he served as in college, Herbert can have a long career ahead of him for the Bears.

In week 11, the Bears play host to the Baltimore Ravens, after losing a tough matchup against the latter’s division rival Steelers two weeks ago. Quarterback Justin Fields is taking all the right steps forward, and wide receiver Darnell Mooney is morphing into the Bears top receiving option despite Robinson and Kmet present downfield. Montgomery may be closer to 100% (it’s a major-contact sport, is anybody really 100%?) so Herbert is expected to still be limited.

Still, if the Bears are watching tape from when Monty was out, they’ll find ways to feed the rookie and let him cook.

Week 7 prediction:

8 carries, 45 rushing yards, 1 reception, 5 receiving yards