ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Walking down the large hill Wednesday morning, the hill that leads to the Chiefs’ practice fields during their annual training camp, Isiah Pacheco smiled. Each step featured a certain bounce, a confident gait from Pacheco, a running back who was ready to start his second season, a much-anticipated sequel.
Smiling, he began singing the classic Haddaway song “What Is Love,” with those catchy lyrics of “Baby don’t hurt me, no more.”
Pain, at least for the soft launch of Chiefs training camp, is not an issue for Pacheco, who has surprised the team this week by participating in the truncated practices meant mostly to help acclimate the quarterbacks and rookies. Just a couple of days ago, coach Andy Reid said he wasn’t sure when Pacheco, who spent much of the offseason rehabbing from surgeries to repair a torn labrum and a broken bone in his left hand, would make his camp debut.
Pacheco, who appears to be ahead of the team’s recovery timetable, took the first handoff exchange from quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Reid and general manager Brett Veach were watching closely. Once the repetition ended, Pacheco used his right hand to shake Veach’s right hand.
“I’m feeling great right now,” Pacheco said after Thursday’s practice. “I trust the (athletic training) staff, and we’re able to work out a plan. I’m getting back into shape, and we’re working.”
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Few players on the Chiefs’ 91-man roster enjoy practice more than Pacheco. In last year’s camp, as a rookie who was selected in the NFL Draft’s seventh and final round, Pacheco became the team’s newest darling, quickly earning the respect of his teammates and Reid’s trust. The byproduct of such an impressive camp led to Pacheco having one of the most remarkable rookie seasons in franchise history. He became the starter midway through last season and led the team with 830 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Fans adored Pacheco for his entertaining, daring and tenacious playing style.
Pacheco voiced his enthusiasm throughout Wednesday’s practice, whether yelling praise to his fellow offensive teammates or barking trash-talk to those on defense during a seven-on-seven period in the red zone. But Pacheco, who has worn a yellow jersey, has yet to participate in such repetitions. The Chiefs, of course, want to be cautious with Pacheco, who hasn’t been cleared for full-contact drills.
“It’s a process that takes time for me to just continue to listen to the staff, and trust in myself,” he said.
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The Chiefs are optimistic Pacheco will receive enough full-contact reps during camp to be available for the Chiefs’ season opener Sept. 7 against the Detroit Lions.
“Absolutely,” Pacheco said when asked if he would be ready for the game.
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 216 pounds, Pacheco often inspired his teammates, especially the linemen, when he bounced up immediately after getting tackled last season. After becoming the starter, Pacheco gained 754 rushing yards in the final nine games of the regular season, the third most in the league during that stretch. More than half of those yards (469) were gained after a defender made contact with him. His first highlight of the postseason, in the divisional-round win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, involved him bouncing his run to the perimeter before gaining 39 yards, his longest carry of the season.
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Pacheco, though, suffered his shoulder injury in early December in the Chiefs’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Then he broke his hand in the Chiefs’ win over the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game. But Pacheco said neither injury bothered him enough to affect his performance in Super Bowl LVII, as he helped the Chiefs rally and defeat the Philadelphia Eagles with 76 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“I’m blessed to be here, to be a part of this team,” Pacheco said last month. “I’m going to keep working hard. There’s more hard work to be put in, more things to get done.”
This season, Pacheco is expected to be the starter and handle an increased workload. As a sophomore, Pacheco also understands that opposing defenses will have spent more time studying his weaknesses, even in the midst of his surprising success.
“People just watch a little bit more film,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said in June of Pacheco. “It’s not like people are watching college film on you (during your rookie year). Even with that, he’s learning.”
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Todd Pinkston, the new running backs coach, commended Pacheco last month for his study habits during the team’s offseason program despite not participating in the voluntary practices.
On Thursday, Pacheco said he plans to take more detailed notes during this year’s camp while the Chiefs incorporate new concepts, protection schemes and plays. He plans to be a more dependable receiver for Mahomes, joining veteran running back Jerick McKinnon as an above-average threat out of the backfield.
Whether you’re drafted number one overall or Mr. Irrelevant… Every. Pick. Counts. pic.twitter.com/F9sxoJejZs
— NFL (@NFL) April 24, 2023
Such improvements would be quite the sequel for Pacheco, who was featured in one of the NFL’s TV advertisements ahead of the draft. With his left hand and wrist in a cast, Pacheco read the negative portion of an evaluation of his skills from an opposing scout — how his traits were “pretty average,” that he “(lacked) fluidity” and “(lacked) explosiveness.”
“For me, this is what it’s all about,” Pacheco said last month on becoming an inspiration for younger players. “I soak in those moments because it’s the little things for me, whether it’s an autograph or saying hi. It will always mean something to those kids.”
Pacheco was willing Thursday to share just one of his individual goals for this season: He wants to record at least 1,000 rushing yards. The last running back to accomplish such a feat was Kareem Hunt in 2017.
“It’s hot — and it’s only going to get hotter,” Pacheco said of the practice conditions Thursday, a day before the rest of the Chiefs’ veterans are expected to report to camp. “I’ve been here before. I know what’s to come, and I’m unsatisfied. I’ve got to keep working.”
(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)
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