Conte prepares for first NFL start

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Lovie Smith's decision to bench veteran safeties Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather opens the door for third-round pick Chris Conte to try to earn a permanent spot in the Chicago Bears' secondary.

Conte, the No. 93 overall selection in April's draft, is being paired with Major Wright on Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings, as Smith continues to search for stability at safety.

"It's my first NFL start. I played on special teams and a little bit on defense, but it's a big opportunity," Conte said Friday. "Of course, you are going to be nervous, but I'm going to go out there and execute. I don't know if I thought it would come so soon, but they obviously drafted me for a reason. So yeah, I expected it to happen, but I didn't know when."

Conte was a full-time starter for one season at California, but was named first-team all-Pac 10 his senior season. He has the athleticism Smith is looking for at safety, even though he's been limited to playing mostly special teams during the first five weeks of the regular season. Conte saw brief action at safety in the Bears' Week 2 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

"A lot of athletic ability. He's green, hasn't played a lot, but (he has) all the things you need before you get a chance to get on the field and prove whether you can really play," Smith said. "He was a cornerback in college, has those type skills. But he's an unknown ... as far as getting time at the safety position. But we have seen him make plays on special teams, having to make plays in the open field, so we've had a chance to see some of that athletic ability."

One of Conte's the main assignments Sunday night is to avoid getting beat deep. Three times already this season the Bears have allowed pass plays of 50 yards or more, and two of those completions went for touchdowns. Conte and Wright were both on the field when Saints receiver Devery Henderson torched the secondary for a 79-yard score in the Superdome.

"Just take care of my assignment and guard against big plays," Conte said. "As long as we grind it out and make them beat us, then that's the best thing we can do. As long as we keep the ball in front of us, guard against the big play, I think we'll be all right."