GOSSAGE: Conte booting his way into Cavalier lore
Nearly two weeks ago, the man sitting to the left of me all afternoon was an “Iron Duke” — one of the many Blue Devil alumni and well-off bandwagoners who join the club to help fund Duke Athletics and to receive priority seating for football and basketball games each season.
While one elderly woman in blue stared me down with the depraved look of a Cameron Crazy after I applauded Duke’s opening three-and-out, the man beside me and I began to chat.
We talked on and off for the rest of the game about fan attendance at Scott Stadium — given the empty seats at Wallace Wade that Homecoming day — as well as Coach K’s new batch of phenom freshmen, the injury to the Blue Devil’s first-string signal caller Thomas Sirk, Virginia’s quarterback Kurt Benkert breaking the school record for single-game passing yards in only his fourth career start, among other topics.
In the second quarter, trailing 0-7, the Cavalier’s second drive sputtered. Benkert and the offense faced a third-and-26 from their own six-yard line, so his ensuing 14-yard completion to junior receiver Doni Dowling brought out Virginia’s punting unit, with field position on the line.
Off the laces, it was a booming 55-yard punt that sent the Duke player peddling backwards, and it floated up in the air long enough for Cavalier gunners to race down the sidelines and bring him down after a minimal return to the Blue Devil’s 34. The man and his wife were marveling at that first punt. They asked me what our punter’s name was. “Nick Conte,” I said. “What a kick!” they said.
Conte continued to impress. With exception to the 33-yard punt he did not get all of at the start of the second quarter, Conte added punts of 48, 65, 48, 43 and 44 yards. On two occasions, his punts pinned the Blue Devils on the one-yard line. One bounded perfectly before halting like an ideal 65-yard approach shot on the links, the other traveled 44 yards, setting the scene for that monster hit that lit up social media.
“I was so excited. Jordan Mack came off that edge, and it was almost in slow motion…” Conte said. “It’s almost indescribable, knowing that we had pinned them deep, and without that punt, and without my punt unit running down there, literally diving, and saving the ball from going in the end zone, that we probably wouldn’t have gotten that touchdown. That was really kind of the dagger that ended the game for us and got us that road win we needed.”
The Iron Duke kept scratching his head. He told me he’d seen Virginia play over the years, and it seems like the squad always has a good punter.
I nodded, agreeing we’d had some solid ones in my lifetime, though I had trouble remembering specific names. Through some research, I found out Alec Vozenilek, ‘14, and Jimmy Howell, ’11, were the recent guys who’d each averaged over 40 yards per punt throughout their collegiate careers.
Then there were Ryan Weigand, ’08, whose ridiculous 45.2 average led the ACC that season, Mike Abrams, ’01, who was named an honorable All-American in 2000 for his 42.6 average, and the legend Will Brice, ’96. Brice has gone down in Virginia lore for his four straight All-ACC appearances, his First Team All-America honors in 1995 and his 78-yard boot against Georgia Tech in 1994.
Add the senior Conte to the list. He did not appear in any games his first two seasons as the back up to Vozenilek, but his last two have been incredible. As a junior, Conte was named an All-ACC honorable mention for his 44.7 average, which tied Brice for third in school history, and his 15 punts which landed inside the 20. This year Conte is even better, making a run at the 45.9 season record set by Russ Henderson ’78.
“I feel like I am hitting a higher ball, but a more consistent ball as well,” Conte said. “It’s a lot more spiral turn-overs — not as many low liners — that are too far up for a returner to catch, that get a nice bounce… I just feel like I’ve really honed in on what I’m able to do over the last year.”
His 45.2 yards per punt average this season ranks 12th in the entire country. Conte has already tallied 13 punts inside the 20 and seven 50-yards or longer. He and coach Bronco Mendenhall have set high bars on what each expect every time Conte is called upon. They want 100 percent of punts to start the opposing offense’s drive inside the 20 and have set a net-38 punt as the standard.
So far, Conte has exceeded Mendenhall’s benchmarks. The Cavalier punter has made an impact on the defensive side of the ball.
“By him making them start so far away from the opponent’s goal line, or our goal line, it just really has been helpful because it’s allowing [our defense] more time and more plays to mature,” Mendenhall said. “[Conte] is, I think, weapon is the right word, and a punt is not necessarily a bad thing for us when you talk about the field position change, and where the opponent will get it.”
I wanted to tell the Iron Duke that when it came to great Virginia punters, Conte was in a league of his own this season. But that would be overlooking Henderson, Brice and Weigand, and denying decades of Cavalier football history I conceded the man knew more about. He had witnessed it in Durham throughout the years. Maybe Conte is only another good among goods, but that does not make his senior season any less special.