Hau’oli Kikaha might have felt defeated the night he received the diagnosis that he tore the ACL in his left knee for the third time.
There aren’t a lot of football players who have been through that, and the odds of coming back from each tear and being the same decrease with each injury. Yet after the Saints defensive end learned what he was up against, he pulled out his phone and sent coach Sean Payton a text message to let him know that he was going to come back fighting.
“The night he received the first diagnosis, he sent me a three-page long text, just about how this has just motivated him more,” Payton said. “He is a pretty tough cookie. Obviously, you’re the exception if you can come back after the third ACL and play, but I wouldn’t bet against Hau’oli. He has that mindset, and that’s encouraging.”
Kikaha tore his ACL twice while at the University of Washington. He bounced back and recorded 19 sacks as a junior. So he’s no stranger to adversity.
But the fact that he has suffered the same injury multiple times makes his situation unusual. Kikaha will meet with at least three doctors to receive different opinions. Then he will make a decision on the direction of his treatment and who will perform the procedure.
Payton said there is no damage outside of the ACL, which is good news, and the first two doctors Kikaha saw gave him the same diagnosis and treatment plan.
“It’s about what you use to repair the old ACL with,” Payton said. “In other words, are you taking part of the hamstring? There are two or three different options, but to his credit, he’s been unbelievable in regards to his mindset.”
The injury almost certainly means that Kikaha is done for the season. That also means the guy expected to start at the defensive end spot opposite Cam Jordan is no longer available.
It wasn’t a sure thing that Kikaha would serve in that role after moving down this off season from strongside linebacker, where he recorded four sacks and four forced fumbles as a rookie. But he was the surest option among a group of players waiting that will look for someone to distinguish himself this offseason.
The top options for that spot now become Kasim Edebali and Obum Gwacham. Edebali recorded five sacks last season but is currently battling an injury. Gwacham, a developmental player, has been taking the first-team snaps in Kikaha’s absence.
Gwacham has been doing well in that spot and has benefitted from adding weight this offseason. Edebali said he expects to be back sooner than later.
“I’m ready,” Edebali said. “Today I ran 16 half-gassers, full speed pretty much, so I’m feeling pretty good.”
Payton didn’t rule out the idea of bringing in outside help but also said he likes the options he currently has at defensive end.
“We have a handful of options. I think there’s that initial knee jerk of, ‘Well you have to go sign someone,’” Payton said. “You have to be careful that the vision’s clear. Right now we’re going to work on the guys that are here and obviously pay attention to any type of player that might be able to help us that isn’t signed.”
Losing Kikaha won’t alter the vision of the defense. But it will take away a player who could have contributed and helped the defense a few different ways.
“I think if you ask me his strengths, I’d say he’s a situational pass rusher, a guy that can play on the early downs,” Payton said. “I think he plays with a really good motor, but it doesn’t change what we are wanting to do.”
The injury, however, keeps the Saints in a familiar position. Just like last offseason, after Junior Galette was released, the team is once again searching for answers at defensive end.
New Orleans ended up settling on Bobby Richardson. This year, at least on paper, the internal options should be a little better getting after the quarterback.