Hau’oli Kikaha is no workout warrior.
Kikaha, who ran through positional drills at the NFL combine but declined to do any of the eyeball-catching physical tests, posted pedestrian numbers at his pro day. None of his numbers, from the 40-yard dash to the bench press to the jumps, would have put him at the front of the line in Indianapolis.
His athleticism shows up most when he’s wearing a helmet. Kikaha, like any rookie who has to mix it up on the line of scrimmage, still has plenty to prove when the Saints put on full pads in training camp, but the pass rusher is able-bodied enough to handle any role defensive coordinator Rob Ryan asks him to play.
“I’ll say this: I’m not really a drill guy,” Kikaha said after the Saints wrapped up summer practices. “But when it comes to playing football, that’s a different story.”
Kikaha is being asked to learn an entirely new set of skills.
Deployed as a 4-3 defensive end at Washington, Kikaha spent five years lining up with his hand on the ground and attacking the quarterback at the snap. In all that time, Kikaha estimates he had to run downfield in one-on-one coverage just one time.
Now, in the base defense, the Saints are asking Kikaha to line up all over the formation — usually in a two-point stance — and changing his responsibilities on any given snap.
“It’s half and half,” Kikaha said. “So a lot more coverage responsibility, but same deal. Sit on the edge and rush the passer.”
Kikaha knew this change was coming. At his size — he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds — he doesn’t have the frame necessary to play his old position for most teams at the NFL level. Armed with that knowledge, Kikaha spent the pre-draft process learning to drop into pass coverage.
He also had to learn to play from a standing position. As an outside linebacker, Kikaha not only has to learn to pass-rush from a two-point stance, but he also has to learn to line up in a linebacker’s traditional crouch, weight balanced evenly on both feet, ready to set the edge in an entirely different posture than the one he used at Washington.
“When you’ve got an opportunity to grow and show what you can contribute to the team, you’ve got to work at that part of the game to make it another strength,” Kikaha said. “That way, you’re worth more. Your value increases.”
Kikaha has taken to the role well enough that the Saints rotated him into the No. 1 unit at times during their mandatory minicamp in June. Coach Sean Payton said the team likes to play with personnel groupings early in the preseason process, but Kikaha’s willing nature and attention to detail have caught the coaching staff’s eye.
“Love the quickness, the passion, the way he plays the game,” Ryan said. “He’s really done a good job working with Joe Vitt on getting his zone drops and things like that, something that he hasn’t had a lot of experience doing. He’s come a long way in just the few days that we’ve had him.”
No matter how many new roles Kikaha is being asked to play, he’ll be judged primarily on the skill that made him well-known at Washington: getting to the quarterback.
Kikaha piled up 32 sacks over his final two seasons in the Pac-12. New Orleans, which dropped from 49 sacks in 2013 to 34 a year ago, needs more players who can bend the edge, get to the quarterback and play as an outside rusher in nickel and dime formations, packages the Saints used on more than 70 percent of their snaps last year.
The rookie flashed an impressive first step and quickness in some 11-on-11 drills during minicamp. Kikaha’s athleticism is encouraging, but the Saints will get a better idea of how much he can contribute once training camp begins.
“It’s hard to rush the passer right now and get an idea if someone is doing it well or not,” Payton cautioned. “I think time will tell.”
For the moment, Kikaha is off to a good start, and he’s dead set on keeping his momentum rolling. Kikaha went home to Hawaii to see his family briefly after the Saints broke for the summer, but he planned to get back to work as soon as possible to meet his size and conditioning goals for training camp.
Kikaha isn’t worried about the perceptions that dropped him to the second round of the draft. Now that he’s in the NFL, all he cares about is his production.
“Who knows?” he said. “We’ll see. Maybe one day, they’ll get rid of the combine deal.”