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Conte settles in at safety in 2nd year

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Bears free safety Chris Conte (center) intercepts a pass in the end zone in front of Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Kris Adams on Sept. 9 at Soldier Field. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

LAKE FOREST – Chris Conte quickly made a name for himself as a rookie for the Bears in 2011.

OK, so maybe it wasn’t the name he expected: “Birdman.”

The nickname came from teammate Henry Melton, who thought that the fleet-footed Conte had a special way of gliding to the football. Birds glide. So there you go.

Hey, figured Conte, a laid-back native of Southern California. One could be called worse.

“I liked it,” Conte, 23, said this week at Halas Hall. “I never really had a nickname, so I kind of ran with it. I think whenever guys are giving you a nickname, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Here’s another good thing: Stability at the safety position.

After years of searching for the right combination, the Bears finally have found a reliable tandem in the deep secondary. Conte and Major Wright have started every game this season and expect to line up alongside each other again Monday against the Detroit Lions.

Several years ago, Conte could not have imagined such a scenario.

Conte’s football journey started as a high school quarterback at Loyola, which is an all-male, Jesuit academy in Los Angeles. Because of his athletic ability and dependable hands, coaches converted him to a two-way starter at wide receiver and cornerback.

Pac-10 programs took notice as Conte helped his team win a division title as a junior and tallied impressive all-around numbers as a senior (614 receiving yards, four TDs, 58 tackles, four INTs). He narrowed his choices to UCLA and Cal before deciding on the latter.

There, the quarterback-turned-wide-receiver-turned-cornerback moved to safety before his senior season.

Conte earned first team All-Pac 10 honors as a senior, and the Bears selected him with their third-round selection (No. 93 overall) of the 2011 NFL draft.

“Once I moved to safety, I really just took off with that,” Conte said. “I think that was my natural position. I kind of wish I had been playing that the whole time.”

Yet Conte can appreciate the skills he developed during his days as a cornerback.

“Everything worked out. I think [by] playing corner, being able to have the matchups on the outside, play a lot of man coverage, stuff like that, it really helped me in the long run.

“It helped me especially in the league now, I think. A lot of safeties have to play a lot more man [coverage], and they’re getting away from the traditional in-the-box type safeties.”

Now that Conte has established himself as a starter, he has other goals in mind.

The Bears lead the NFL with 13 interceptions this season, but only one of those belongs to Conte. He has two career interceptions in 14 starts and would love to add to that total Monday.

If that happens, a national TV audience could watch “Birdman” stretch his arms in celebration.

“I just want to be around the football more now,” Conte said. “The interceptions are something that I want to be more a part of. I think they’ll come. I want to be a guy like Charles Tillman who creates tons of turnovers. I want to go after the football.

“I think it’s coming. I’m getting close. I just have to finish it off at this point.”

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