Chris Conte originally was a safety in high school. A very good safety actually (top 25 by Rivals, top 70 by Scout). So it's no surprise that people must be wondering, "Why did it take him four years at Cal to finally suit up at his natural position?"
A few things. It's widely speculated that Conte wanted to be a cornerback in college, and he only switched his commitment from UCLA to Cal when Tedford and the coaching staff agreed to let him try out his hand at cornerback. Bob Gregory also liked tall guys who could play the ball, and Conte's a giant on that field. Then Cal struggled with corner depth for many of the past three seasons, forcing Conte to fill in and play a position he wasn't accustomed to. Safe to say he was not having an easy time his first three years getting to the place where he belonged.
When Clancy Pendergast did put him there? Nirvana.Conte has a special skill for putting ball-carriers on their butts. He has great instincts, great tackling form, good awareness on the field. Conte specializes in open-field tackling, where he approaches his man, puts him square up, and takes him down. He's also excellent in pursuit and taking proper angles when having to chase down the guy with the ball.
Basically, he just takes people down. I'd say it's a pretty nice skill to have as a football defender.
Conte was able to produce in close games and in routs: 72 tackles in 2010, including seven games with seven tackles or more against the best opponents. During that awful, awful 42-0 first half in the Coliseum, Conte had to clean up the messes of his teammates on too many occasions, finishing with an incredible 14 tackles. Many times he was having to grab guys who had already picked up a pretty decent chunk of yardage, turning Conte into the equivalent of a soldier who's stuck picking up bodies from the battlefield. He did his job, but the damage had already been done.
But there were better moments for him to showcase his talent. Conte shadowed Darron Thomas the entire Oregon game, giving him all sorts of trouble running the ball when he withdrew it from his running backs and took it himself. He had a similar performance against Arizona, finding the targets of Nick Foles and taking them out with methodical regularity. In an NFL where speed is essential, Conte proved that he could handle teams where up-tempo and spread attacks were commonplace.
Despite all these positive attributes, it's hard for me to say if Conte will succeed in the pros, because I only saw him succeed for such a short period of time at Cal. There are some cases where they do seem to pan out (like with Nnamdi Asomugha and Verran Tucker). He certainly has the measurables, the mettle, and the fundamentals of a safety. But can he be versatile enough to handle the other part of being an NFL defensive back, the pass game?
The big question goes back to coverage, which is another part of the life of an NFL safety. Safeties inevitably have to line up and defend their man, and here Conte was only average. Although he wasn't much different from any Cal cornerback not named Darian Hagan or Syd'Quan Thompson, Conte would struggle reading the ball and would have to be content with staying close up to his man and hopefully disrupting his throw. And he was only okay in zone coverage--he would misjudge the area where the quarterback would throw the ball, or get looked off/faked out out of his spot to open up a passing window. Conte will have to excel in these areas to stay on the field in the pros, and I'm just not sure whether he can do it after having so many issues during his four years here.
I feel pretty strongly that Cameron Jordan will have a long and productive career, that Shane Vereen has all the potential to succeed in whatever role he's given, and that Mike Mohamed is more than capable of working his way toward a place in the league. With Conte, it's a mystery how he turns out, and his path as a pro isn't likely to be as straightforward. His journey through the pros might end up being as convoluted as his journey as a Golden Bear. Hopefully the ending will be similar.