When trying to get a feel for the kind of player the Saints are getting in former Washington defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha, perhaps the best place to start is a 2013 game against Stanford.
That offensive line was about as strong as any in recent seasons, with Cameron Fleming, who now plays for the Patriots, and Andrus Peat, who was selected by New Orleans with the No. 13 pick in last week’s draft, serving as the bookends. That film would hold the truth about Kikaha’s strengths and weaknesses as a pass rusher.
There were moments within the game when Kikaha was handled. Saints fans will likely be glad to know that, for the most part, Peat held his own against the Washington linebacker, whom New Orleans drafted in the second round.
It doesn’t take long to see why the Saints are excited about landing Kikaha. In fact, after burning the opening snap, Kikaha makes you stand up and notice. On his second play of the game, the linebacker is rushing off the left side of the formation, with his hand in the dirt. Fleming immediately gets his hands in Kikaha’s chest. He’s done. Nice play by the future Patriot.
Not so fast.
Kikaha takes a step to his left, knocks Fleming’s hands down, and then steps across the front of his body to go in pursuit of the quarterback. He doesn’t reach him in time to record the sack, but in this moment you can see what made Kikaha so appealing to the Saints.
In many respects, this play exemplifies who Kikaha is as a player. He isn’t going to win any races or blow anyone away with his athleticism. He succeeds through his work ethic, technique, and a belief that the play is never over until the whistle blows. With these qualities, he’s much like another player who once got away from the Saints, Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich.
But there is also an explosiveness to Kikaha’s game. He has great initial burst and some power to his game. There are times when maybe he’s a step slower than you’d prefer, but that’s where his workman-like effort and technique comes into play.
That mentality helps him make plays when everything appears lost. One such moment came in a game against Hawaii when he tried to bend the edge, but found his path blocked when the running back came from the other side of the formation to chip in.
Instead of giving up, Kikaha hit a quick spin move, turned back, and began his pursuit of the quarterback. By the time he closed in, the quarterback was already moving up in the pocket because of his pressure, which allowed a teammate to clean up with the sack.
The area where Kikaha truly shines is with his hands. His background in judo has translated to football, where he often appears unblockable. One of his best moments from last season came against California. To the untrained eye, on the play in question, it might appear that he simply bent the edge and the left tackle whiffed on his block attempt. But looking closer, Kikaha used his left arm to chop the tackle’s right arm, which sent tackle falling to the turf. Kikaha finished things off with the sack.
Those hands are what make Kikaha a special player, and there are countless moments that could be pointed out to illustrate that point. He’s going to cause some problems for NFL tackles.
The jury is still out on how he will fit in with the Saints. It’s possible that he will start out as a situational pass rusher and split time with Junior Galette on early downs. It’s also possible that the Saints will see Kikaha as a better option against the run, which could help him steal snaps, though he’ll need to show some quick development during training camp.
While it’s certainly not his strongest suit, there were moments in the four games reviewed for this article when he showed potential.
Kikaha does, however, struggle to take on blocks directly, leaves gaps open in the running game, and he sometimes fails to set the edge. He also possesses the ability to drop into zone coverage, which is something the Saints like to do with Galette, but will also need to improve here.
To get better in both of those areas, Kikaha will need to show a little more patience.
But even if he serves only as a rush specialist, the Saints managed to acquire one of the more productive pass rushers in college football the past two seasons in the second round. That’s something they can live with.