Hau’oli Kikaha is back where he belongs on a full-time basis.
Kikaha, who spent his rookie season playing strongside linebacker in the base defense and shifting out to edge rusher in the Saints’ nickel and dime packages, has moved to the Jack position, the weakside defensive end in coordinator Dennis Allen’s scheme.
For Kikaha, the shift represents a move back to the position he played in college. At Washington, Kikaha’s spot was called the “Buck,” a spot described as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position.
Whatever it’s called, the position’s primary role is simple: line up wide on the edge and hunt quarterbacks.
“I’m still a little (bit of a) hybrid,” Kikaha said. “I mean, I can be used in multiple schemes, different places. And that’s what I play, whatever they want me at on a specific day.”
Kikaha isn’t the only 2015 pick moving back to the spot he flourished in college. Fifth-round pick Davis Tull, who was forced to sit out his entire rookie season after undergoing surgery on his labrum, has also moved out to the Jack position and left strongside linebacker, or the “Sam” position, behind.
Now, the Sam role will be manned by fellow 2015 pick Stephone Anthony, a natural linebacker who has spent his whole career dropping into zones in coverage, unlike Kikaha and Tabb.
And he can already see a difference in his classmates.
“It’s their natural position,” Anthony said. “Those guys are happy to put their hand in the ground, and they don’t have to think so much.”
Kikaha has already proven himself as a pressure player in the NFL. Used as a defensive end in sub-packages last season, Kikaha racked up four sacks and forced three fumbles in the first half of his rookie season, all before a high ankle sprain suffered against the New York Giants robbed him of some of his playing time down the stretch.
Tull, on the other hand, is still looking for his first taste of NFL action. A small-school player from Chattanooga who flashed a quick first step in his brief healthy work at training camp last season, Tull no longer has to worry about the shoulder problems that derailed his rookie year.
“Both of them are doing well,” Payton said. “They’re both healthy. For Tull, that’s important, because he’s getting full-speed reps now, and Hau is someone who’s used to playing in that rush position.”
The Jack position is still flexible enough that Kikaha and Tull could rush from a two-point stance at times this season, and there’s always the possibility that a zone blitz could ask them to drop into coverage on rare occasions.
But neither player will be forced into coverage for multiple snaps by offenses that use heavy personnel to keep the Saints’ base defense on the field.
“We have a bunch of stuff, different packages, but we’re starting off with base and regular, and it’s early in install,” Kikaha said. “So I play an edge person, whatever you want to call it, Jack, Buck, weak end, strong end sometimes.”
Allowing Kikaha to focus on rushing the quarterback could upgrade a pass rush that was forced to rely too heavily on Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Jordan last season.
If Kikaha can improve on the pressure he provided in the impressive first half of his rookie season, and if Tull starts to make an impact as a sub rusher, Jordan will have plenty of help along with defensive ends Kasim Edebali and Obum Gwacham -- in putting heat on opposing passers.
“I am excited that the young guys we have at defensive end aren’t rookies anymore,” Jordan said. “The transition from the first year to second year, that’s the big leap, and that’s where we look for that transition. We’re excited for them to produce.”