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OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Hau’oli Kikaha Ready to Help Saints ‘D’ Through a Tough Time

Unexpected opportunities. In life, those who take advantage of them when finally given the chance to prove themselves, can use those opportunities to go on and achieve great success. For Saints 3rd year defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, that time is right now.

"For anyone who wants to be a competitor, a contributor to the team, you want to be out there with the guys having fun and doing it," Kikaha told New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson recently.

"You just wait, control what you can and eventually the opportunities come your way."

As it's been well-chronicled: Kikaha tore the ACL in his left knee last off-season in the Saints' final session of OTA's, for what was the THIRD time of his playing career, and all 3 of the torn ACL injuries have occurred within the past 5 years.

That in and of itself, would normally signal the end of a professional athlete's playing career. It's difficult enough to have to overcome one torn ACL injury,  much less three of them — and all in the same exact area.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

But that's exactly Kikaha was hoping to do this season before the emergence of his teammate, former Arizona Cardinals and Saints prized free-agent signee, defensive end Alex Okafor.

Prior to his season-ending torn Achilles injury late in the 4th quarter in the Week #11 win against the Washington Redskins, Okafor had been a key contributor lining up on the right outside edge opposite of Saints Pro Bowl defensive end and team sack leader Cam Jordan, and he was a big part of the Saints defensive resurgence this season after 3 straight years of sub-par (and at times horrible) performances.

Before his own injury, Okafor had 4.5 sacks as an edge pass rusher and was on the field for 77 percent of the team's defensive snaps.

But instead of replacing Okafor with Kikaha, the Saints instead chose to replace Okafor in the line-up with this year's rookie 3rd Round draft pick, Trey Hendrickson.

Hendrickson himself became a key contributor for the Saints defense this season, appearing in 12 games and totaling 13 tackles (seven solo), two sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.

But following the ankle injury that he suffered in the 2nd quarter of this past Thursday Night's 20-17 loss against the Atlanta Falcons, Hendrickson is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season but should be ready for the Playoffs, assuming the Saints make it.

So finally, even though it's not quite the way that he originally planned it, Kikaha is can show everyone that the rumors of his NFL playing-career demise, have been greatly exaggerated. It's an unexpected opportunity to be sure — but Kikaha is ready to step up and help the Saints defense through a tough time.

(AP Photo/David Goldman) David Goldman

As noted by Erickson yesterday, Kikaha has had to make his plays "in spots" all season.

Kikaha has been installed in a situational role and the Saints defensive coaching staff normally chooses to not allow him to play against the run, so he's been a healthy scratch in three games and has played just 156 snaps on the season.

In those 156 snaps, Kikaha has 4 sacks — which ranks him 3rd on the team behind Jordan and the since-injured Okafor. As Erickson noted, Kikaha's latest and most recent sack came after Hendrickson got hurt against Atlanta, and his take-down of Falcons QB Matt Ryan ended a drive that appeared to be headed for at least a field goal.

Now it appears that Kikaha will assume the starting right defensive end / edge pass rushing role for the Saints defense going forward, and now he can take advantage of one of those "unexpected opportunities" that life sometimes can provide.

Let's all remember that Kikaha has not only just “beaten the odds” once, but twice before; by coming back successfully from two torn ACL’s to the same knee (his left knee) in college, to lead the entire NCAA in sacks his senior season at Washington in 2014.

Kikaha suffered an ACL tear to his left knee during a Week #5 game in his sophomore season at the University of Washington in early October of 2011, and then re-injured the very same knee just a few months later during a practice session in fall camp the following year in August of 2012.

But he bounced back with a strong junior season in 2013, while starting every game for the Huskies and finishing the year with 13 sacks, 70 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 passes deflected / batted down.

He then of course followed that up with his phenomenal senior season of 2014, when he was named a 1st team AP All-American with 19 sacks, 72 tackles (which included 25 of them for a loss behind the line of scrimmage), 3 forced fumbles, and 2 passes deflected / batted down.

As a result, Kikiha became the sixth unanimous All-American in the entire history of the University of Washington Huskies football program.

Photo courtesy of The Seattle Times

After then being taken with the #44th selection overall in the 2nd Round of the 2015 NFL Draft by New Orleans, Kikaha finished his rookie season with 52 tackles, 4.0 sacks, and four forced fumbles in limited action; as the Saints started him out originally at strong side / "Sam" linebacker before moving him to his more natural position as an outside edge pass rusher / 9-technique defensive end.

He then was very much looking forward to bigger and better things last year, when disaster struck.

Kikaha suffered a torn ACL injury in the final week of Mini-Camp last June, and the Saints placed Kikaha on the physically unable to perform list before Training Camp, where he remained for the rest of 2016 and missed the entire season.

Torn ACL's typically require a minimum of nine months to a year for full recovery; and so the "good news" as the Saints began preparing for this year's schedule this past off-season, was that Kikaha ended up being way ahead of schedule in the rehabilitation process.

But in Training Camp and in the Pre-Season, Okafor took control of the competition for the starting right defensive end spot, which eventually relegated Kikaha to his reserve role.

Now with Okafor done for the year and Hendrickson out until Playoff time, it's Kikaha's turn in the spotlight.

It's a chance to show everyone that he still has a lot of talent at his disposal, to contribute greatly and potentially make an indelible impact on NFL Sundays.

Opportunity is knocking — and Hau'oli Kikaha is ready to open up the door.......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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