WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Hau’oli Kikaha’s world seems to change on every snap.
First, he’s a traditional outside linebacker, setting the edge against the block of a tackle or tight end. On the next snap, he’s dropping into pass coverage — a role he rarely had to play at Washington. Then, if he’s lucky, Kikaha gets a chance to line up with his hand on the ground and attack the quarterback — the specialty that got him here in the first place.
For some players, the one-play-at-a-time approach is just a cliché. For Kikaha, it’s a necessity right now.
“What’s first and foremost for me is whatever (the) coach has for me on that particular play,” Kikaha said. “Doesn’t matter if he wants to put me at defensive tackle or safety; that’s what I’ve got to do on whatever play he tells me to do it.”
Kikaha has learned quickly.
Few other Saints have come as far as Kikaha in the team’s first week of training camp. On the first day of pads, Kikaha struggled to contain running backs on the edge of the formation and found himself frustrated in one-on-one pass rush drills, trying to do too much instead of attacking the tackle with a plan and a countermove.
“I think the first transition is, man, all of a sudden you are getting some of the best pass protection in the world, and maybe week in and week out in college you didn’t see that,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “You are going to have to improve technique and get off, and you are really going to have to fine-tune some of those things that maybe you were able to have success with prior.”
Fast-forward a week, and Kikaha has arguably come further than any player on the Saints’ roster.
Kikaha is now starting to show some of the pass-rush ability that earned him 32 sacks in his final two college seasons by beating offensive linemen for sacks in team drills — and in Thursday’s red-zone session, the converted defensive end routinely took away the quarterback’s checkdown to the running back in the flat.
The key? Simplifying his daily goals. Kikaha wants to learn everything at once; outside linebackers coach Brian Young is teaching him to slow the learning process down.
“A lot of times you get overwhelmed with how much stuff you have to learn, so when you can, you teach these guys that there’s one, two and three — just add them up, these things right here,” Young said. “If you try to study everything in minute detail, you’re going to get confused more often.”
Now Kikaha is starting to look like a player who can make an immediate impact.
Offered ample chances to play with the starters — in part because of an injury to veteran linebacker Anthony Spencer — Kikaha is rising to the challenge.
“I wouldn’t put a grade on it, but I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do,” Kikaha said. “Fixed errors, made corrections to things, done things well off the bat. So there’s a lot of a positive, good things going on.”