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15 in '15: Feeney and Littleton Bucked Up the Washington Huskies Defense

Two seniors on the Huskies' D filled a gap left behind by a legend and elevated a young unit to an elite level.

How do you replace a legend?
How do you replace a legend?
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The south side of the property at the middle school that I once proudly ruled (or pretended to, as is the case with most pubescent boys) featured a fairly dramatic slope that declined about 30 yards from top to bottom before coming to rest along a fairly busy avenue.  Pine trees lined the entirety of that hill and provided canopy to mischievous young boys who liked to pick up discarded pine cones and use passing by cars for target practice.

Cone tossing was harmless enough.  Not quite a victimless crime, but not exactly a capital offense.  Occasionally, a miscreant with poor judgment and pithy countenance would substitute into the mix a small rock.  Having been raised with a keen sense of when the punishment would involve the use of a ruler versus the use of a broken-off piece of cedar fencing, I rarely ventured across that fuzzy but not so vague line of decorum.

Unfortunately, I had the poor sense to allow myself to be in the presence of others with fewer scruples and more hardened asses.

On one such occasion, that small stone managed to make square content with the side panel of a brown Chevrolet Caprice station wagon.  I remember the model not so much because I was an expert on station wagons but because my family had a similar model, only in green.  The driver of the vehicle immediately pulled over to both inspect the damage and to look for the offenders.  Like most middle-schoolers, we possessed both great guile and intellect.  We suavely retreated behind the protective canopy of the pines and over the fence divider onto the school property.  What we failed to account for was the clever deduction by the driver that the rock-thrower must have been a student at the school.

The next day, when the principal entered my homeroom class, I knew I was done for.  Not because I threw the rock or even because I helped launch the plan.  My goose was cooked simply because I was present for the offense and I did little (ok, nothing) to stop it from happening.

The rest of the story is as you would expect it.  I was exposed to any variety of torture techniques applied to social deviants in the day.  Suspension, slave labor (to compensate the victim for damages), social disassociation, the cedar plank...the list goes on.  On the bright side, any dream I had of attending a fine institution like Harvard, Yale, or Northwestern likely died that day.

Yay Huskies.

The feeling of guilt by association was generously burned into my being after that event.  There have been few times since that I have allowed myself to be exposed to that sensation since.

Until last season.

You see, I was one of those guys.  A Husky fan that couldn't understand how a two-time Bear Bryant winner like Chris Petersen could inherit a defense brimming with NFL talent and manage to do so little with it.  How could a man like that inherit a future first-round defensive tackle and not lead the PAC 12 in rush defense?  How could it be that a coach so distinguished could have available a Paul Hornung Award winner and fail to beat a single ranked team?  How could the presence of the future NFL rookie of the year at CB not be parlayed into a victory over even one FBS team with a winning record?

And, most importantly, how in the world could a coach like that, who had been unable to create success with the defensive hand he had been dealt, go about the task of replacing the legendary Hau'oli Kikaha in a defense that had precious few obvious successors?

It was one buckin' big problem.

But Petersen and DC Pete Kwiatkowski both knew something about the construct of the team that we (and, by "we,"I mean "me" plus anybody else who cares to identify themselves with me) didn't fully appreciate.  In truth, they probably knew and still know many such things, but I digress.  The point here is that they understood that the value of the BUCK position wasn't so much about what one individual could do rushing the passer from a glorified DE position 75% of the time.  Rather, it was about taking "x-factor" talents and leveraging the skill sets of those players to disguise coverages and to create opportunities, even if the realization of those opportunities flowed to other players on the field.

In a way, the disguise of the rush was like an extra man on the field. While neither player individually was able to match the productivity of Kikaha, the combination of the two gave the Huskies an advantage they had not enjoyed the year before.

"You want to put that doubt in the offense's mind — is he coming, or not?  But definitely, you're trying to play to guys' strengths, for sure." Those were the words of DC Kwiatkowski regarding the role of the BUCK as stated shortly before the season opened.

I don't need to tell anybody how the season played out.  LB Travis Feeney - who in no way resembles Kikaha - was named the starting BUCK linebacker to open the season.  His partner in crime, OLB Cory Littleton, was also used in a similar fashion throughout the season.  The presence of two long, lean, and lightning-quick outside backers who could flex between guarding a zone and rushing a gap turned into a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks to read and offensive coordinators to manage.

The pair would combine for 121 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, and 14 sacks swapping roles as the season went on.  Beyond the stats, the presence of both players on the field at the same time created significant opportunity for DC Pete Kwiatkowski to disguise where the pressure would come from without often having to commit an extra defender to a blitz.  In a way, the disguise of the rush was like an extra man on the field.  While neither player individually was able to match the productivity of Kikaha, the combination of the two gave the Huskies an advantage they had not enjoyed the year before.

Like the kid who didn't throw the rock but was complicit in its tossing, I bear the guilt of having doubted the capability of this staff and those players to backfill a legend, even if I never really wrote a word on this site stating it.  So, to Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, I say "mea culpa."  That was a really bucked-up thing for me to do.