Travis Feeney has polished his reputation this season through sacks and tackles for loss, enough of them that the Washington Huskies buck linebacker has twice been named the Pac-12’s defensive player of the week.
But he hopes you notice him when he’s not wearing his helmet, too. Especially in October, a month that has become particularly important to the fifth-year senior from Richmond, California.
That’s because October is breast-cancer awareness month, and Feeney knows the disease too well. His mother’s best friend recently died from it. His aunt, too. And he knows a few others, he said, who lived with breast cancer and were fortunate enough to survive it.
It is with all of them in mind, Feeney says, that he walked into the Roosevelt Barbershop with a peculiar request, and walked out with the shape of the breast-cancer awareness ribbon — dyed pink and everything — cut into the hair on the back of his head.
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If you’re walking behind him, you can’t miss it. And the haircut received even more attention during ESPN’s national broadcast of Washington’s 17-12 victory over USC on Oct. 8, a game in which Feeney made seven tackles and had 2.5 sacks.
“A lot of family and friends who have lost their loved ones have messaged me to say thank you,” Feeney said Tuesday, the pink ribbon still intact. “It’s something that really hits me. I didn’t think people would be touched by it as much as they were.”
He started doing it last season, he said, and hopes to get the same cut every October “as long as I can play.”
That’s a period of time that could encompass several more years, based on how well he’s performed this season. Feeney leads the Pac-12 in sacks with 6.5 in eight games, and ranks third in the league with 13 tackles for loss.
And he’s done it at a new position, moving to UW’s hybrid “buck” linebacker spot that was occupied a year ago by all-time Huskies sacks leader Hau’oli Kikaha.
Feeney, who is listed officially at 6-foot-4 and 226 pounds, was recruited as a safety. Then he moved to outside linebacker. Now he’s rushing the passer more than he has at any point in his career, with some coverage responsibilities mixed in, too.
“I think if you want to play football at the University of Washington, you want to play buck,” said UW defensive line coach Jeff Choate, rattling off the names of a few Boise State players who thrived at the position under UW coach Chris Petersen.
“That position is really like playing tailback on offense. You’re going to get opportunities to make plays because of the nature of it. So I think that’s where we try to look for that dynamic guy, and Travis has done a nice job of creating explosive plays for us on the edge, and he’s got a unique skill set. He’s extremely long and fast.”
So fast that at times, Petersen said, Feeney would too often find himself out of position, then rely on his athleticism to make up for it. And that worked to an extent — Feeney did have 60 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss as a junior last season — but he needed to become more detailed in his assignments.
That remains an emphasis. But, Petersen said, “I think he’s playing a little more solid, because he’s doing his job, playing with better eyes, and it’s really starting to translate for him.”
Feeney said he asked Kikaha, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, for advice. He gave him pointers on how to turn his hips and body, “so I can get back on the quarterback.”
Feeney also studied highlights of players with similar body-types — Aldon Smith, Lawrence Taylor and Vic Beasley, to name a few — to get an idea of what the proper technique is supposed to look like.
Kikaha, of course, was a good place to start — as Petersen said, “I don’t know if there are many guys I’ve been around that work harder on the intricacies of pass rushing” — even if Feeney is considerably leaner and considerably faster.
Rob Rang, a senior NFL draft analyst for CBS, says Feeney most likely projects to the NFL as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, a position that “takes advantage of his ability to rush the quarterback as well as dropping into coverage.”
“He has that fantastic speed,” Rang said. “That’s what makes him really stand out compared to most linebackers available.”
Before the season, Rang said he projected Feeney as a late-round draft pick. Now, he might merit middle-round consideration, Rang said. And if he’s invited to the NFL scouting combine and works out well, “we could be talking about a top-100 type prospect.”
“I still see a fair number of missed tackles on tape,” Rang said. “But he’s such a remarkable athlete with great speed, and there’s a need for linebackers who can do it all.
“… He’s definitely one of the fastest-rising linebackers, in my opinion, among seniors. The arrow is pointing up for him at this point.”
PAC-12 SACK LEADERS
Travis Feeney has recorded six of the Huskies’ 22 sacks to lead the Pac-12 conference. The leaders through Oct. 31:
1. Travis Feeney
T2. Pita Taumoepenu
T2. DeForest Buckner
T4. Darryl Paulo
T4. Kyle Kragen
T4. Aaron Wallace
SATURDAY: Utah (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) at UW (4-4, 2-3), 4:30 p.m., Ch. 13, 1000-AM, 97.7-FM