Safety Chris Conte demonstrated the wherewithal to withstand an up-and-down career on the day he showed up for his first training camp at Cal.

Conte introduced himself to his new teammates sporting a haircut that looked like a skunk. It's one thing for a senior or returning starter to make such a bold move. It's risky for a newcomer to call such attention to himself.

"He's brave. I couldn't have done that," said Cal safety Sean Cattouse, who was part of that freshman class. "It got a round of laughs when he first came in, but it wasn't too bad."

As it turned out, laughs from his teammates were just the beginning of a career filled with challenges for Conte to endure. After becoming a part-time starter at cornerback as a true freshman, he spent the next two seasons coming off the bench with uncertain roles. Finally, as a senior, Conte has settled into his spot as starting strong safety. He's coming off the best game of his career during a loss at Arizona.

Conte played cornerback during his first three years of Cal, even though he says he took most of his practice reps at safety last year. He lost the starting cornerback job to Darian Hagan as a sophomore and then watched last year as a carousel of other cornerbacks took turns starting instead of him.

It frustrated Conte. Not only were other players getting more of a shot, he felt his role was undefined by the coaching staff.

"My whole Cal career thus far has played with my mind," Conte said. "It's hard. It's emotionally tough. You never know what you're going to be doing or where you're going to be playing or how much you're going to be playing. It's a little bit of a struggle to go from playing your freshman year to not really knowing what's going on and be in limbo."

At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Conte appears more suited to playing safety. But he actually acquitted himself well playing corner as a freshman. Cal was the only school to recruit him as a cornerback, and he demonstrated the ability to run with receivers down the field.

Playing behind the talented Hagan in 2008 was easier to understand. But when Hagan was demoted from the starting lineup last season, Josh Hill and Bryant Nnabufie got the call over Conte.

Conte said his parents, especially his mother, Anne, had to talk him out of transferring.

"I had a lot of very long discussions with my parents about it," Conte said. "I think anybody in that spot would have been like, 'Screw this.' My mom helped me out a lot with that. She told me that I had to believe in myself and it will make me a stronger person. I could have taken the immature way, but I really think the better thing for me to do was to stay here and fight through it. I think I turned out a better person for it."

Conte says now he couldn't be happier. Not only does he enjoy playing safety more than cornerback, he knows he will be on the field for every snap. That has allowed him to develop more of a comfort level, and his game has picked up.

In Cal's 10-9 loss at Arizona on Sept. 25, Conte led the Bears with eight tackles and also had an interception.

"Even as the fifth (defensive back), he had that role coming off the bench," Cal secondary coach Al Simmons said. "But some days he might get 30 snaps and some days he might get 10. Now, he can get a feel for the game."