Basic instinct

Sean Cattouse left his home at quarterback to travel across the country to play defense for Cal. Now a senior leading the secondary, Cattouse knows his instincts didn’t lead him astray.

Emma Lantos/Senior Staff

It’s December 2006 and Sean Cattouse is stranded in a hotel room over 1,800 miles from his home. This is not how he envisioned his official visit to a school that had shown interest in him for several months.

His player sponsor, Brandon Jones, is nowhere to be found and the rest of the prospective Cal footballers are elsewhere experiencing the Saturday night of a Division-I athlete.

Sean Cattouse does not know Berkeley. Sean Cattouse does not know the Bay Area. Sean Cattouse does not know California. And on a night when he is supposed to be receiving royal treatment like the rest of his fellow recruits, the athlete from the south side of Chicago is alone in the foreign confines of the Claremont Hotel.

So how, almost five years after an experience that could have turned off any recruit, is Sean Cattouse smiling about his catastrophic first experience? Just how did Sean Cattouse, a dual-threat quarterback and bone-rattling safety from Big-Ten territory, find his way to an environment so far from the only city he knew?

It’s because Sean Cattouse has instincts. It’s because Sean Cattouse has vision. A star quarterback and defensive back from the heart of one of America’s most complex cities, Sean Cattouse knows where he is on and off the field. He knows his strengths. And he knows how to be a leader.

“To be associated with the word quarterback, you need to be a leader,” says senior wide receiver Michael Calvin. “If you break down then your guys will break down with you. He’s a backbone for the defense.”

Now in his senior year, he has utilized his football instincts to become a cornerstone of the Cal secondary.

But what instinct brought him from the hustle and bustle of inner city Chicago to Berkeley?

It’s the summertime and Sean Cattouse is working out at a camp at nearby Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill. College coaches, talent evaluators and reporters crowd the scene to watch the batch of high schoolers vying for scholarship offers.

In attendance is Mike Dunbar, the former Cal offensive coordinator who had recently left nearby Northwestern to help draw up plays with Jeff Tedford. Dunbar wanted a dual-threat quarterback for the spread attack that he would institute that season and Cattouse, the versatile athlete from Hubbard High School, is nailing his throws in and out of the pocket. He can pass, he can run and he plays smart. Dunbar hands Cattouse his card.

“All I knew about Cal was from seeing my brother playing the NCAA video game,” Cattouse says. “And we liked their jerseys. That matters to a 17-year-old.”

Call us, Dunbar says. Send us your film.

Before he knew it, Cattouse had an offer to play at Cal.

But not at quarterback.

Quarterback was always in Sean Cattouse’s heart.

The starter on his 2006 city championship team, Cattouse received a handful of offers to play quarterback at the Division-I level, but major schools like Cal, Illinois and Northwestern wanted him on the other side of the ball.

They wanted him to read the quarterback when he rolled right, to recognize the moves that he used to elude and evade opposing defenses. They wanted him to hit.

They wanted him to use those football instincts.

“He’s mentally tough and he has something that a lot of people don’t have in that he has short-term memory,” Calvin says. “He has quarterback mentality in that he’ll erase it fast. He doesn’t repeat his mistakes. It’s great. He’s very in-tune with that himself, and that’s what separates him from a lot of guys on the field.”

It became increasingly clear that Cattouse would not be lining up under center if he wanted to play at the level he envisioned. It was time that he utilized the skills — both physical and intangible — to find his way into a college secondary as soon as possible.

There was only one problem. Cattouse’s chief recruiter Dunbar left Cal just three weeks after his top target verbally committed to play for the Bears.

But Cattouse was undeterred. So were those closest to him.

“My mom knew about UC Berkeley,” Cattouse says. “My teachers said, ‘Berkeley?’ and talked about how amazing of a place it was. It was the academics that attracted the people around me.”

So he decided on Berkeley; now it was time to get on the field.

It’s September 19, 2009 and Sean Cattouse is patrolling the secondary against Minnesota, the school he almost attended ahead of Cal. It’s third-and-six and Gophers quarterback Adam Weber rolls out right. Cattouse used to do this all the time in high school. His instincts come into play.

“I can sit back to try and read the quarterback’s demeanor because there are certain things they do to tip you off,” Cattouse says. “When you roll out, it’s a cardinal sin to throw across your body.”

He immediately comes charging across the field, knowing Weber won’t throw to the left side. He sees Weber’s intended target, Eric Decker, wide open and charging down the right sideline. Weber lobs the ball toward the pylon. Decker catches the pass, only to be met by a blistering hit delivered by the strong safety who sniffed out the play from across the field.

Decker somehow hangs on. Touchdown Gophers. But what a hit. What a read by the guy that wasn’t even supposed to be in the play. What great instincts.

It’s October 2011 and Sean Cattouse has just a little more football left to play in college. He still presides over a Cal secondary that has struggled this season after a strong 2010 campaign. But at the end of the day, his instincts were right.

“Berkeley and the Bay Area have definitely molded me from what I was into the young man that I am,” Cattouse says. “I’ve improved intellectually in terms of my mindset and on things bigger than football. I think it really helped me grow tremendously. It took me a step up being in this environment and being by myself.”

Sean Cattouse knew to come to Berkeley. He knew despite being abandoned on his recruiting trip. He knew after his lead recruiter departed before he ever set foot on campus. He knew to come to Cal because of his instincts.