Slowly but surely, the signs are beginning to show up everywhere. A sack here. A QB pressure there. A run "stuff" during goal-line drills. Those were just a few off the whole handful of plays made by one Saints defender in the past few practices of Saints Training Camp this week; and after today it now appears to be now turning into a "trend".
In the brutal New Orleans summertime heat and humidity that saw several players leave the field due to cramping, that player was making plays during practice yet again today during 11-on-11 team drills --- and got consistent pressure on the Saints QB's (including Drew Brees) and even notched 2 "would be" sacks had it been an actual NFL game.
Brees getting all sorts of pressure in his face, this time by Hau'oli Kikaha
— John Hendrix (@JohnJHendrix) August 5, 2017
Kikaha with another "sack" as things wrap up
— Joel A. Erickson (@JoelAErickson) August 5, 2017
That player of course would be 3rd year defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, who if you're a Saints fan that follows the team closely, is someone that you know is making the difficult attempt to comeback from an unbelievable THIRD carrer-threatening injury, all of them to the same left knee --- after he tore an ACL ligament during OTA's in June of 2016.
But now just a little over a year from what may have been the low point of the 25-year old's life, the prognosis seems to be very encouraging; given the doubts that were looming over the edge rusher's head as he reported to Camp over a week and a half ago.
At this point after he's participated in a total of 9 practices (7 with pads), it can now without hesitation be said of Kikaha: "so far, so good".
Kikaha's rehabilitation efforts appear to have paid off nicely thus far, a testament not only to his physical capabilities, but perhaps more importantly: his mental roughness and intestinal fortitude to persevere in spite of the obstacles thrown in front of him.
In fact, Kikaha's training regimen has been so intense that he is now up to about 260 pounds -- from his previously listed 245 -- and all 16 extra pounds appear to be pure muscle.
But while watching him, one thing becomes evident and almost a bit surprising given what he's endured the last several months: he doesn't appear to have "lost a step".
Would be Sack of Brees Kikaha on the pressure Defense continues to win pic.twitter.com/AIxrGAzz2T
— Kristian Garic (@KristianGaric) August 2, 2017
In today's practice earlier, New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill observed that Kikaha had those two sacks mentioned previously above, and says that during team drills, Kikaha keeps "flashing".
Underhill added that if Kihaha can keep stacking up these solid moments and locks down a job, it would be beneficial for the defense; since it would then allow DE Alex Okafor to sometimes enter the line-up on the inside (as a defensive tackle) in the sub rush, as he did during Saturday’s practice.
"It's good to see (Kikaha) moving in a healthy way and getting on an edge. He had a couple of run snaps the other day that were pretty good." Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters when asked about Kikaha the other day.
"I think you're seeing him now obviously knock off a little bit of the rust, but he's feeling healthy," Payton said. "He's getting the treatment, and you're starting to see some of his edge speed."
“I say this whether we are talking about Hau’oli, Obum (Gwacham), the two younger players we drafted, or (Alex) Okafor—it is an area that has to get better. I think it will. So, how many snaps and where guys play in that pass rush is still to be determined.
"It is good to see him moving in a healthy way and getting on an edge. He had a couple of run snaps the other day that were pretty good.”
Kikaha has been part of a 5-man rotation in Camp thus far (Kikaha, Alex Okafor, Obum Gwacham, and rookies Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad) at the outside edge pass rush position opposite of All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan, and it's simply way too early to handicap or assess where he is at the moment regarding the pecking order as of now.
But one thing is certain: it's clear that if nothing else, the fears that his career may have potentially been over and done with, have been firmly and unequivocally put to rest.
"I enjoy it, and it's really whatever the team needs at this point," Kikaha told reporters on Wednesday. "As long as I'm doing a good enough job to get on the field, or stay on the field, that's where I'm going to be."
This isn't Kikaha's "first rodeo" with this sort of thing, and he's already made a previous successful comeback once before from this very exact same situation.
Kikaha tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in his sophomore season at the University of Washington in September 2011, and then did it once again in the same left knee early during Huskies training camp in August 2012.
He then came back to have a 13-sack season in his 2013 junior season, and led the entire nation / Division 1 college football in sacks in 2014 with a total of 19.
The question coming into Camp wasn't whether or not Kikaha "could" come back, because he's already proven that he could do it.
There was a question however if he actually "would" be able to do it, given that only one pro athlete ever (that we know of and is well-documented for Pro Football history's sake) is Carolina Panthers All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis --- who has successfully overcome tearing the same ACL in his right knee in three different NFL seasons (2009, 2010, and 2011).
Davis returned to action in 2012 for his first full season since the initial ACL tear in 2009, and has posted at least 100 tackles in every season since (2013 through 2016). He was also named to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and again last year in 2016, and helped the Panthers make it all the way to Super Bowl 50 two years ago.
But just because Thomas Davis was able to pull it off successfully, didn't necessarily mean that it was going to be easy for Kikaha, no matter what his specific circumstances were.
However, as the Saints now head into Practice #10 tomorrow and their first game of the Pre-Season in just 5 days from now at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland against the Browns, it now appears that Davis can move over --- since we can now likely (unless something dramatic happens between now and then) go ahead and add Kikaha's name to that list.
At least for the moment anyway, it appears that Kikaha has pulled off the unexpected.
And perhaps even more unexpected: the Saints pass rush off the outside edge opposite of Cam Jordan, won't be nearly as bad as it's been predicted to be.
Welcome back, Hau.
So far, so good...........