Bears rookie RB Khalil Herbert in spotlight vs. Packers after Damien Williams exitsJason Lieseron October 14, 2021 at 10:11 pm

Bears RB Khalil Herbert ran for 75 yards on 18 carries in the win over the Raiders. | David Becker/AP

Williams tested positive for coronavirus and is unlikely to be available Sunday against the Packers. That means a sixth-round pick gets another chance to prove he belongs.

The Bears are down to their third-string running back as they prepare to face the Packers after Damien Williams tested positive for coronavirus. They put Williams on the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, and the chances of him being available Sunday are extremely low.

If Williams is vaccinated, which is unknown, he would need to test negative twice — 24 hours apart — before kickoff to be cleared to play. If he is unvaccinated, he will be out a minimum of 10 days, which means the soonest he’d be eligible to return would be the day before the Bears face the Buccaneers.

Teams are not allowed to disclose a player’s vaccination status. Williams hasn’t been asked by the media since June, when he said he was unvaccinated.

The Bears have not had a player miss a game under the NFL’s COVID-19 policy this season.

Williams’ exit came when the Bears were already playing without injured starter David Montgomery. He’ll miss at least the next two games because of a sprained knee.

So who steps into the spotlight as their primary running back? Khalil Herbert, a rookie.

The Bears are high on Herbert after he ran for 75 yards on 18 carries in the win over the Raiders, but that’s just one game. The Bears drafted him out of Virginia Tech in the sixth round — the 217th selection overall and No. 15 among running backs.

“I’ve still got a lot to prove, still got a lot to fix, still got a lot to work on,” Herbert said Thursday.

He began his college career at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech as a fifth-year senior. He ran for 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns on 155 carries in 2020.

The Bears didn’t necessarily plan to give Herbert so many carries against the Raiders, especially with Williams being a seven-year veteran, but he made a strong case early.

He ran for 11 yards on his first rush and added runs of nine, seven and eight yards in the second quarter. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry in the first half and went all afternoon without losing a yard.

“Sometimes with the backs, it’s the flow of the game and how many hits they’re taking,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “And then some plays obviously are planned specifically for a guy because it’s something that he’s good at.”

Herbert began his career as a kick returner, then the Bears moved him to offense full-time when Montgomery went down. Ryan Nall (five carries in three seasons) is the only other healthy running back on the active roster, and they have Artavis Pierce on the practice squad.

While he was penciled in for special teams, Herbert has been fully engrossed in learning the offense since he reported for rookie minicamp in May. He quickly became a favorite teammate of fellow rookie Justin Fields, who was impressed by his work ethic from the beginning.

“He’s treated this whole process like a veteran,” Fields said. “Literally every time I pull up [to Halas Hall], he’s always here. After practice he’s always out there doing extra little moves, or on the [pass-catching] machine.”

Now, he and the Bears will find out what that work was worth. The team would rather not be in this situation, but it gives Herbert an opportunity to show he’s much more than a fringe player. And after climbing from near the bottom of the roster to being a key contributor last week, he deserves that shot.

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