Obum Gwacham and Hau’oli Kikaha have been pushing each other this offseason, testing themselves against each other like a knife and a piece of steel, facing off in a relationship that embodies the Biblical verse that has become a rallying cry for the Saints over the years.
Iron sharpens iron.
Now, Gwacham finds himself in the position of replacing Kikaha, who will likely miss the entire season after tearing his ACL, both from a workout standpoint and along the Saints’ defensive front. Both Gwacham and Kikaha have been playing the “open” end position in the Saints defense, and with Kikaha out, Gwacham took first-team snaps in the Saints’ organized team activity Thursday.
“He called me up last night, and we talked a little bit,” Gwacham said. “It definitely does suck, but there’s other guys on the team I can get up with and learn from.”
Gwacham, the raw prospect who made 2.5 sacks in limited time as a rookie, will have plenty of competition for playing time. Third-year defensive end Kasim Edebali has been held out of OTAs so far, but he finished second on the team with five sacks last season and carved out a key role in sub-rush packages. Fellow second-year player Davis Tull is also finally healthy after missing his rookie season due to shoulder surgery.
All three fit the bill.
“You want your open end to be a faster guy, somebody who can get to the ball, and you want your closed end to be Cam Jordan, who’s a little bit bigger, and who can take on the tackles and tight ends, freeing us to chase,” Gwacham said.
Gwacham, who is only in his third year as a pass rusher, might have the most untapped potential. Formerly a wide receiver at Oregon State, Gwacham has only one year as a collegiate pass rusher and 97 NFL snaps under his belt at the position.
He spent the offseason working hard to grow into a 6-5 frame that’s a prototype for a pass rusher. Gwacham spent the offseason training at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, and he packed on 15 pounds, raising his weight to 258 pounds.
Gwacham is visibly thicker in the chest, shoulders and arms, so much so that he thinks he turned some heads when he returned to New Orleans.
“One of the things I wanted to make sure to do was, the second I walked into that locker room, I wanted guys to take a second look at me and think, ‘Woah, he looks different,’ ” Gwacham said. “Obviously, the coaches did it, the players did it, so I was pleased.”
Gwacham was able to add the weight without compromising the physical attributes that earned him a sixth-round draft pick by Seattle and a full season with the Saints last year despite his relative lack of experience at the position.
And in Dennis Allen’s defense, the defensive line is being asked primarily to penetrate, so the Saints are happy with the way Gwacham has filled out since his rookie year.
“He’s long, he’s quick, he’s a good athlete, he just naturally does some things you like in the pass rush game,” Young said. “He could still put on a little weight if he wants to, but again, we’re not worried as much about weight as we are about power and explosiveness. We’ll trade power for pounds any day of the week. So 260, 265 as long as he can hold his own, as long as he can set an edge and collapse the pocket, he can weigh whatever he wants to weigh.”
So far, Gwacham’s added weight and experience has paid off this offseason.
Far from an unpolished diamond in the rough anymore, Gwacham is starting to make the kinds of strides that could help him get on the field in more than the sparse pass-rushing situations he was handed a year ago.
“The biggest thing for him right now is getting him out of that mindset of a receiver,” Saints pass rush coach Brian Young said. “He’s got to get into that mindset of, he’s 260 pounds right now, he’s a lot stronger, he’s really taken hold of trying to play base technique for us. Where last year, when he first got here, it was all pass rush, and let’s go out there and win with quickness.
“Now, we’re trying to teach him to get a power aspect to his game, and he’s doing well with it right now.”
The loss of Kikaha makes Gwacham’s accelerated development even more important.
New Orleans did not add a defensive end in free agency or the draft, banking on a young stable of pass rushers to build on the flashes of potential they showed last season. With Kikaha unavailable now, the Saints need a player like Gwacham to take big steps in his second season.
“I feel a lot more confident, a lot more ready,” Gwacham said. “From what I’ve seen in OTAs, I definitely feel like I’ve come a long way.”