Travis Feeney came to the University of Washington in 2011 as a skinny safety. He later moved to outside linebacker; this season, he has yet another new assignment to master.
He may be the last man standing on the Huskies’ stacked defensive front seven from last season, but Travis Feeney is hardly standing still. He is, in fact, on the move again.
Feeney came to Washington in 2011 as a skinny safety. A year later, he switched positions and became UW’s regular starter at weakside (WILL) linebacker. Last year, he switched to the other side of the field as the strongside (SAM) linebacker.
On Saturday, during the team’s first practice of fall camp at Husky Stadium, Feeney was learning yet another new position, “Buck,” a hybrid outside linebacker who must possess enough speed to stay with a slot receiver and enough strength to tangle with an offensive tackle.
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The good: For the first practice (contested in shorts and jerseys, no pads), redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels was generally crisp throughout, connecting on six consecutive throws during one 7-on-7 drill. Senior WR Jaydon Mickens, who wore a Go Pro camera atop his helmet, had perhaps the catch of the day when he came back for a Carta-Samuels pass on the right sideline, dived and hauled in the reception, appearing to stay in bounds.
The bad: Mickens did drop a sure touchdown on a Carta-Samuels pass in an early team period. Carta-Samuels also had the lone turnover of the day, overthrowing his intended target and getting picked by walk-on DB Hayden Schuh. Junior QB Jeff Lindquist was rusty early, missing on his first half-dozen throws, but he made up for it in the final team period by leading the first-unit offense on a nine-play, 65-yard drive, capped by Cameron Van Winkle’s 32-yard field goal.
Of note: In UW’s split-squad workouts, freshman QB Jake Browning practiced with the younger group in the afternoon. He will work with the veterans Sunday morning, with Carta-Samuels switching to the afternoon practice.
“It’s always a new challenge for me,” said Feeney, a fifth-year senior who says he’s recovered fully from winter shoulder surgery. “It seems like every year, I’ve always been moved. I came in as a safety. I was a WILL. I was a SAM. Now I’m a Buck.
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“I don’t mind it. I think it shows my versatility. As long as I’m playing at a high level, I feel great about it.”
As UW’s Buck ’backer last year, all Hau’oli Kikaha did was lead the nation in sacks — breaking every UW sack record along the way — and earn unanimous All-America recognition. Mighty big shoes for Feeney to fill, but he’s learning from the best mentor possible: none other than Kikaha himself.
While Kikaha was still in town training for his first NFL season with the New Orleans Saints, Feeney picked his brain about the nuances of the position. He said he spent much of the summer trying to perfect the pass-rushing techniques Kikaha taught him, practicing the moves “whenever I can, wherever I can.” He often came out to the side field next to Husky Stadium alone to test his footwork and hip “flip” technique.
“He is a tremendous talent,” linebackers coach Bob Gregory said. “He’s putting it together every day.”
Once Feeney is able to collect more practice reps at the position, he plans to send the film to Kikaha for feedback. Feeney hasn’t been asked to rush the quarterback much in his career — he has 7.5 sacks in three seasons — and at 6 feet 4, 226 pounds, he probably won’t be asked to rush the quarterback as much as Kikaha did.
But as the lone returning starter from last year’s star-studded front seven — Kikaha, Danny Shelton, Shaq Thompson, John Timu and Andrew Hudson are all in NFL training camps now — Feeney brings a much-needed veteran presence to the defense.
Senior Cory Littleton, penciled in as the new starter at SAM linebacker, is another veteran whom coaches are counting on.
“I think a lot of people forget about those two guys,” Gregory said. “Everybody talks about Shaq Thompson — I miss Shaq, don’t get me wrong — but those are two guys who can play some good football for us.”
An elite pass rusher is one of the more rare commodities in college football, and UW had two of them last season in Kikaha and Hudson, who took advantage of Shelton’s dominance in the middle of the line. As a result, the Huskies were second in the nation last season with an average of 3.71 sacks per game, but they have lost 85 percent of that production.
They might have to get creative — i.e., blitz more — to be able to effectively pressure the quarterback this season.
“We know what we can do,” Littleton said. “We just have to prove it.”
Sophomore nose tackle Elijah Qualls, for one, is confident the Huskies can set the edge well with Feeney and Littleton.
“I’m going to let you all in on a little secret: As far as Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, I’m one of their biggest fans,” Qualls said Saturday. “I think they are some of the best linebackers in college football. So any time those dudes are on the field with me I’m stoked, because I know they’re both going to get to the ball.”
And, the Huskies hope, to the quarterback.