Get to know Bears draft pick David Montgomery: A Q&A with Iowa State running backs coach Nate Scheelhaase

The first in a series of conversations with the college position coach of each Bears draft pick.

David Montgomery was two years into transforming Iowa State’s football culture when Nate Scheelhaase arrived in 2018 as the Cyclones running backs coach.

As a member of coach Matt Campbell’s staff, Scheelhaase, the former Illinois quarterback, saw daily examples of Montgomery’s insatiable drive. The same combination of talent and character that impressed Scheelhaase attracted Bears general manager Ryan Pace, coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich during their pre-draft scouting. On Friday, the Bears traded up in the third round to select Montgomery, immediately making him a central figure in the Bears offense.

Scheelhaase recently spoke with the Tribune about Montgomery’s football ability and renowned intangibles. Here’s the full Q&A, edited for clarity.

What are the Bears getting in David Montgomery the football player?

I don’t know that I’ve been around many other guys that have the ability to break tackles, stay on their feet, that run with the ball as aggressively as he does. He can catch the ball out of the backfield; he’s got really natural hands. Obviously, he can run between the tackles. He can run outside. But he always seems to make more guys miss than what you would expect.

There have been countless times when it seems like people are going to tackle him in the backfield or have him down for no gain, and he always finds a way to get extra yards.

He’s a great running back to have because he always keeps you in front of the chains. Anybody that’s trying to move the ball and score points, when you’re staying in front of the chains, it makes your job a lot easier. He does that naturally. He just has a knack for finding extra yards.

What physically allows him to be so elusive and break so many tackles?

That’s a good question because there is a physical side and a mental side. He is really, really quick. As big as he is at 220 pounds or so, he’s got a high level of quickness. He’s got the quickness of a smaller, 195-pound back. He’s tough to grab in a phone booth. I think that quickness and lower-body strength help him stay up and keep moving forward. So it’s just level of “quicks” and a high level of balance.

What about the mental side, his determination as a runner and the mindset he brings to carrying the ball?

That’s the part that separates him and you can’t necessarily measure. It’s hard to compare it with other backs. Man, there is something in him — in his heart and mentally in his head — that he hates being tackled. He has a chip on his shoulder always.

It’s almost offensive to him if you think that, as one person, you can bring him down. He runs like that and plays like that. He works out like that in the weight room. That’s just who he is.

You can’t measure it, and it doesn’t always make sense. There might be guys with better physical tools or (accolades) or measurables, but he’s got something in him that he’s always going to give you more than what you bargained for.

When you got to Iowa State last season, how did you come to learn all of that?

You could see it on the videotape, for sure, from his freshman and sophomore year. David and I had a background where I actually recruited him out of high school when I was at Illinois. So I knew him, and I knew, honestly, his spirit was different than most people that I’ve run across. That part helped.

But you’re right. He went the whole (2018) offseason and wasn’t tackled live a whole bunch in the spring or in fall camp, so there’s only much. But Coach Campbell definitely emphasized that you’re always going to get more bang for your buck.

Plays that you think are blocked for a 6-yard carry, it’s probably going to end up being 8 or 10 yards or he’s going to break it for 20 one way or another. You wouldn’t necessarily game plan for it, but you would always know on Saturdays that would show up.

How would you describe his vision, particularly behind the line of scrimmage?

David played quarterback in high school. They would snap the ball, and he would figure out ways to navigate and run. He has really good vision once the ball is in his hands.

He can feel where the extra defenders are. He can find a way to get one-on-one in the hole. He can navigate those things. He bounces it at the right time. He stuffs it in there at the right time. He’s got a really good grasp of what to do when the ball is in his hands. It’s just a natural ability.

Speaking of his high school tape, his senior year tape is fun to watch. It’s really, really long — like, 20 minutes. The reason I think David wasn’t highly recruited is most high schoolers put their very best highlights as the first highlight. The first highlight is the best highlight of the year. Then the second highlight is the second best, and so on.

David did his just in chronological order. So his first highlight is a good run, an 8-yard gain. But 14 minutes in, there are incredible runs. At the 12-minute mark, there’s this nasty run. It’s really interesting to watch.

If you watch the whole 20 minutes — what I always think is people were lazy when recruiting him and didn’t watch the whole thing. They saw the first few highlights and were like, ‘Ah, this guy is pretty good.’ If you watch the whole tape, it would shock you that he wasn’t recruited by the top-five programs in the country.

Is there a specific type of blocking scheme that he thrives behind?

He’s a really good inside-zone runner. He has a good feel, especially in the shotgun, of just how the zone moves and how things feel, which is probably why Coach Nagy and Coach Helfrich and those guys were really interested.

It was funny. There were a lot of teams interested in David, but the teams that seemed to be the most interested all came from that same tree. It was the Chiefs, Bears, Eagles, Colts. Those coaches that came from that same tree, they have a bunch of gun runs that they run really well.

But, again, our bread and butter was inside zone. He got a really good feel of how to do that well in college, and he’ll be really good at the NFL level.

Is there something specific about running from the shotgun, either the way he sees it or times it, that makes him so good on gun runs?

It’s just probably what he did the most. We did a little bit of pistol this past year, and he was good at it. But there was just something about him in the gun. He just knew where to hit it. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why. It’s probably just a comfort level. He’s really, really good at that.

In critical situations, we would always feel like we wanted to move him to the gun. Even if it was a play we ran a lot of times in the pistol: It’s third-and-1, let’s go ahead and do it out of the gun.

We did a little more under center. In our second-to-last game of the season, we played, basically, an ice storm game against Drake. We did a bunch of under-center stuff because we were worried about shotgun snaps. He did a great job at that. But there’s something about him in the gun. He just has a really good feel for things.

As a pass catcher, how much route versatility did you guys train him on and work him through either in practice or in games?

We had a lot of halfback-option plays from the backfield where he would have the ability to get one-on-one with a linebacker in the box — whether it was a middle or a weak-side linebacker — and figure out the best way to get open. He had a really good feel on that.

I still think — and Coach Campbell would say this — he has more versatility even than what we showed. He did do some things out of the backfield, but that was the interesting part.

We always knew he had really good hands. We always knew he could get matched up on different guys. But (we didn’t do it often) just for whatever reason, whether it was us having a freshman quarterback this past year and not really splitting him out and letting him do things. So I think he’ll surprise people with his ability to run routes and catch the ball out of the backfield.

He did some of it in college, but it could be one of those things that even separates him on this next level — his ability out of the backfield or lined up in the slot, and his route running. Again, those quicks that he has and the ability to change direction with the ball in his hands, he uses it well when he’s running routes.

So you’re saying on those option routes that he was reading the leverage of a linebacker and making a cut based on that?

That’s exactly right. We were giving him the full field to make a decision somewhere past the line of scrimmage, 3 to 5 yards down the field. He would feel leverage, feel whether it was man or zone, whether he needed to sit down or break away from a linebacker that was matching him. He had a really good feel on it.

Against Kansas State, he made plays on that. We called it probably three or four times in that game. Shoot, it ended up being 10-yard, 12-yard gains. Those are easy throws for a quarterback and getting the ball in your playmaker’s hand. It’s super helpful to the offense.

That was one of the things at his pro day that people really wanted to see and were really impressed by. It was probably one of the things, as coaches, we got some of the most calls about. “How good can he catch the ball?” You’re going to see some of the stuff on video of him doing it, but he’ll be even better than you expect.

I can’t imagine there’s a back out there that was better catching the ball or better running routes. Now some of them may have done a little more. But him doing that at the next level, that’s a chance for him to separate himself from other guys.

What type of pass blocker is he?

Same thing. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. Pass blocking for a running back is more about a mentality. He’s got the right mentality. He didn’t give up a sack for us all year. He’s really smart in protections and knowing who he needs to pick up.

There were even a couple times last year when someone got beat, and he found a way to stand in there and take on a hit so the quarterback could deliver the football. But he’s really good in pass protection. He’s got a sturdy build and can get up underneath guys. He did a really, really good job for us last year.

Earlier, you mentioned his spirit. To turn our attention off the field and the type of guy he is. How would you describe him as a person — his character — for someone who doesn’t know him?

David has one of the best personalities that I’ve ever been around. I remember when I met him in high school. I called my wife right after and said, “That kid I just met, he’s special. He’s different.”

He really, really loves his family and his teammates. There’s a genuine love and care for those who are close to him. He cares a whole lot about loyalty. That’s why him and Coach Campbell are so close, because there was a level of loyalty between those two.

Coach Campbell was the one that believed in him out of high school, and David played his butt off in college for Coach Campbell. That was really special. Relationships are really special to him because that’s just the type of person he is. He loves to get close to people. He loves to get to know people on deeper levels.

In the locker room, in the community, the Chicago community will be better because David Montgomery lives there. Because he puts on a Bears jersey each weekend. That’s the type of person he is. That’s one thing I would bet on over any of the football stuff. The community, the locker room, all of that will be better because he’s there.

How do you see his generosity and care for others affect teammates? How did you see it within the program’s culture and the guys around him?

David’s spirit changed Iowa State football in these last three years in a variety of ways. One is work ethic. He fully cares about what he’s doing. He’s a very hard worker. He believes in people around him and wants to raise the standard of them being hard workers.

Three years ago after his freshman season, Coach Campbell still tells this story: Instead of going out on a Friday night and Saturday night, David started working out in the indoor facility. The other thing he did is started bringing guys with him.

Instead of, “Hey, what are we going to do? It’s Friday night at 9 o’clock. Hey, we’re going to go downtown and do this or that,” David started pulling a bunch of guys into the indoor football facility in January, February and March in the offseason and working out.

A year later and even now to this day, if you go to our football facility on a Friday night or Saturday morning, it’ll be loaded up with our guys working out. It changed really just with him and what he was about. That’s one piece of it.

Another interesting part is David came in as a freshman (in 2016) and ended up taking over and being the starter over a guy who had been there and done a whole lot at running back (Mike Warren, Big 12 offensive freshman of the year in 2015).

A lot of times that would divide a team. But because of his personality and spirit, there was a level of humility with accepting what that role would look like. There was a level of unselfishness he provided.

He showed the way of, no, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a starter, whether you’re a freshman, whether you’re an All-Big 12 Conference player — everybody is the same. Everybody is required to come to the football facility with a workmanlike attitude. That was the expectation. And some of us may get some accolades with that; some of us may never get known. But we’re all the same in that.

That’s the reason why our locker room is different. That’s what he showed in moments where a lot of kids would have been arrogant or cocky or felt like they had arrived. He didn’t do any of that.

What was it like watching video with him?

Long. He would want to watch a lot of film. My wife joked about it the other day. We were watching some special on David, and they were talking about how much he cared and how much he invested. She was, like, “Ah, yeah, that’s true.”

I remember the West Virginia game. It was a night game. We won the game. Huge game. Knocked out the sixth-ranked team, a big victory, all that.

At 11:30 at night, I get a FaceTime call from him. He’s up at the stadium watching film of a third-and-1 run that he thought he should have gotten a first down.

Now, the next run, we ran it again on fourth-and-1, and he broke a 37-yard run. But he was like, “Man, I saw what you were saying. I should have cut back and got the first down on third-and-1.”

Again, that wasn’t just one time. He was always asking to come up there (to) have a better feel of who we’re playing and what they did.

It’s fun to coach him because he likes it as much as you do as a coach. He likes to learn and grow and be a better football player. Obviously, you have to have that at the NFL level, and he will. There’s not many that are willing to invest that much, but he sure is. He sure is.

rcampbell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Rich_Campbell

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