Sometimes even Hau’oli Kikaha’s teammates can’t believe how much effort he puts into every moment and play that takes place during a game.
He does a lot of things well. The sacks and run stuffs are impressive. But what stands out most about the second-round linebacker is simply how hard he plays each week.
“It’s not talked about as much as it should be,” rookie defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “They like to focus on, oh, he’s a 4.6 40, or he’s got this, he’s got that, he’s a raw, explosive athlete and everything else. But a lot of times, football comes down to effort and conditioning. It’s tiring out there, you’re tired every play, and to be able to push past that and chase the ball, that’s a hard thing to do. Hau’s definitely doing that, and he does it well.”
So it’s like he approaches every play with 120 percent effort while everyone else is at 100?
“Yeah, or to be honest, if some guys are at 70 and they’re at 100,” Davison said. “There’s definitely some truth to that, and Hau’s been really good at doing that.”
It’s not that Kikaha doesn’t possesses talent or a plan when attacking a ball carrier or going after a quarterback. He does. What makes him special is the extra gear he possesses that some others do not.
Take one of his run stuffs from last week’s game against the Dallas Cowboys for example. Kikaha came around the edge, closed in and got a hand on the running back, Joseph Randle. The initial contact slowed Randle down a bit, but Kikaha failed to finish the play. Instead of letting someone else clean it up, he bounced back up and brought Randle down for no gain.
“There is an effort and a want-to element in how he plays,” coach Sean Payton said.
Those traits have helped Kikaha get off to a roaring start to his rookie season. He has already accumulated three sacks, a handful of pressures, and has been effective against the running game. Kikaha recorded at least five run stuffs against the Cowboys during Sunday’s win, many of which came from the back side of the formation.
There aren’t many things to critique about how Kikaha has played, and the coaching staff believes that he’s only getting started. During the first few weeks of the season, Kikaha was adjusting to formations and figuring out how he was supposed to align himself. Those things have started to slow down for him, which has allowed the rookie to think less and play faster on the field.
Kikaha believes the same. He also said he feels like he’ll continue to grow and improve with experience. He had one learning moment in Week 1. Kikaha couldn’t recall the tackle, but he encountered someone who had the perfect counter when he used his chop and rip moves that left Kikaha ineffective on the play. Essentially, the tackle knew how to turn Kikaha’s speed against him and wipe him out of the play.
So what would he do differently?
“As soon as I throw my chop and feel him pulling (my other) arm down, posting my outside arm and then come back over,” Kikaha said. “Simple. So simple, but little things make up the game.”
One of the things that also helped Kikaha this week was that he wasn’t often required to drop into coverage, as he had done with some consistency during the first three weeks of the season. Primarily a pass rusher at the University of Washington, being asked to cover a zone or match up with a tight end or running back was something that was fairly new to him.
It could have been due to the game plan, but against Dallas, he was forced into coverage on only five of his 43 snaps. There’s no guarantee things will remain this way moving forward, and Kikaha said he’s getting more comfortable with it each week, but Payton also said the team needs to keep putting him in positions to succeed.
“I think, really, it’s important for us to highlight the things that we think he does well,” Payton said. “But I think that a lot of these younger players are benefiting from the time on task.”
Kikaha will continue to do whatever he’s asked to do as well as he can. And he’ll continue to impress his teammates with his effort on every play.
“To do it at the high level he is, is exceptional. He’s making plays for us — plays that everyone thought weren’t going to come this quick,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “He reminds me of me my rookie year: just playing hard and not worrying about anything.”
There isn’t much to worry about when the results match the effort.