Saints rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha’s inexperience may have been most obvious after his third sack of the season, when he tried to pay homage to his upbringing in Hawaii with a celebration meant to look like a surfer catching a wave.
Many fans didn’t get it, and Kikaha understood why when he saw the replay.
“That was trash,” the former Kahuku High standout said. “I’ve got to practice that. I got a lot of critiques. Trust me.”
His acumen as a pass-rusher and play-maker, by contrast, is getting a lot of compliments. While he projects a laid-back, island vibe during conversations at his locker, his on-field persona is one of ferocious and relentless intensity.
Not only has the 6-foot-3, 246-pound Kikaha posted three sacks in his first four NFL games, but he’s also forced a pair of fumbles – both of which resulted in turnovers – and has been in on 26 tackles. Up next for Kikaha and the Saints are the Philadelphia Eagles.
“There is an effort and a want-to element in how he plays,” coach Sean Payton said. “In college he was primarily a rusher. With us we feel like that’s his strength, and at times there are exceptions. I think, really, it’s important for us to highlight the things that we think he does well.”
Kikaha grew up in the town of Laie, on the northeast side of the island of Oahu. In college, he played at Washington, where last season he led the nation with 19 sacks. The Saints took him in the second round last spring, betting that a major knee injury which sidelined Kikaha for two seasons in college would not be an enduring issue.
So far, he has not only been healthy, but eager to adapt to playing outside linebacker in the NFL after being more of a pure, pass-rushing defensive end for the Huskies.
“He’s open to learning. He’s always asking questions,” veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. “When he’s comfortable, he’s going full speed and he’s shown in bursts what he can do, making plays.
“We’re using him more in what he’s comfortable doing,” Ellerbe added. “We’re trying to let him do what he does best.”
One of Kikaha’s adjustments involves defending short passes on his side of the field. Another is simply learning how to combat some of the advanced techniques that NFL lineman execute well to gain leverage on pass rushers and throw them off balance.
“I’ve been pretty comfortable doing all the things they ask of me,” Kikaha said. “I learn every time I’m out there something new. There’s a lot of progress to be made in every phase.”
Kikaha said there have been at least two moments when he was baited into mistakes, but learned from both. One involved a lineman using a chopping motion to get Kikaha off-balance and out of position. Another was a deceptive formation that drew his attention away from his area of responsibility.
“I can’t wait to get both of those situations again, and make up for it,” Kikaha said.
There have also been times he knew he belonged. He had to beat Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith, a 2014 All-Pro, to get his latest sack
“I know he’s a really good player. There’s a couple other guys that I respect a lot and know of that I was able to beat,” Kikaha said. “When you do something like that against some talent, it makes you think, ‘Hey, I can really get this done.'”
Kikaha said his primary motivation to succeed stems from his desire to take care of his family.
“On top of that,” he notes, “I love the game. … It’s extremely fun for me.”