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ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE: Can Position Change Help Hau’oli Kikaha “Kick Start” His Saints Career?

On the field for the New Orleans Saints, the terminology for the linebacker that's usually the designated blitzer in passing situations but whose main responsibility is stopping the run and guarding against the pass (mainly against tight ends) is called the strong side linebacker, or known better by its acronym: "Sam" linebacker.

For 4th year defender Hau'oli Kikaha in the next several upcoming weeks and months ahead, the "Sam" / strong side linebacker spot is a position that he will need to re-acquaint himself with; if he wants to remain in a Black and Gold uniform beyond 2018.

After then being taken with the #44th selection overall in the 2nd Round of the 2015 NFL Draft by New Orleans, Kikaha started out originally at his more natural position as an outside edge pass rusher / 9-technique right defensive end, before the team moved him to the "Sam" linebacker spot.

When it didn't pan out, he was eventually moved back to defensive end,

But while there's no question that the Saints defensive coaching staff is hoping that this change back to the "Sam" LB spot will give them another way to utilize Kikaha's notable pass-rushing skills (by using him to blitz the QB in certain passing situations), the question heading into Training Camp that begins in only 3 more weeks from now will be:

Is Kikaha capable of meeting every responsibility that comes with moving back to the "Sam" linebacker position?

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hinton, The New Orleans Advocate

The position change follows another season in which Kikaha didn't quite live up to expectations; thanks mostly to nagging (maybe more like chronic) injury issues that have plagued him since his arrival in New Orleans via that previously-mentioned 2015 NFL Draft.

Kikaha entered the NFL on a "high note" as a rookie back that season, racking up 52 total tackles and 4 sacks.

But his 2016 campaign ended before it even got started, when he tore the same left ACL in his knee in the team's 2016 June Mini-Camp that he had injured twice previously during his time at the University of Washington.

Kikaha came back last season a rotational player in the team's "NASCAR" defensive pass-rushing packages, and tallied 4 sacks playing primarily behind DE Alex Okafor. After Okafor was lost for the remainder of season with a torn Achilles, Kikaha took on an expanded role and had one of his best moments late in the season when he made a critical 4th down stop that led to the 23-13 NFC South-clinching win over Atlanta in Week #16.

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Now, as Kikaha enters the last year of his rookie contract, he's gone from a young player with very promising potential to barely hanging on to a Final 53-man roster spot; while trying to re-acclimate himself with the position.

As New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson reported last month during the Saints' final week of OTA's: the defensive coaching staff tried Kikaha at the "Sam" / strong-side linebacker spot in that final week of practices just prior to Mini-Camp.

Along with Kikaha, the team also had young veteran and recently-signed former Packers linebacker Jayrone Elliot taking snaps at the "Sam" spot also, as the Saints are asking them to rush the passer and audition at strongside linebacker this Summer, beginning when the team's veterans officially report to Training Camp 3 weeks from today.

Erickson says that it was 6th year veteran A.J. Klein who started at the "Sam" / strong-side linebacker position for the Saints last season, then moved into the middle on passing downs. But with former Jets linebacker Demario Davis having signed with the Saints during the off-season, Klein likely projects as the strongside starter again. 

But the coaching staff is always looking to add more quality depth at a position that seems to get hit hard by injury every year.

"I enjoy it, and I think I'm doing pretty well," Kikaha said to Erickson and the rest of the local media covering the team.

Photo courtesy of WWL Radio 870 AM-New Orleans

"I've just got to organize some man-coverage stuff, but I've gotten a few reps at that, and the more you do, the better you get."

To be clear, if this transition doesn't work out, it's entirely possible Kikaha could not only be playing in his last season in New Orleans, but possibly could even be gone by the end of this Summer if the change isn't working out that well.

That isn't to say his NFL career would be over.

But there isn't any doubt that Saints team brass would be ready to finally "throw in the towel" on Kikaha if he isn't up to the task.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hinton, New Orleans Advocate

However before we write him off (and out of New Orleans), let's also 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 Huskies football program.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

So it's more than fair to say that in Kikaha's particular case over the course of the past several years, "only the strong survive".

But the move back to the "Sam" spot could prove difficult for Kikaha, who although he is a solid run-stopper, isn't quite nearly athletic enough to keep up with many of the League's more quicker TE's.

The strong side or "Sam" linebacker has to take on the lead blockers in run plays, or deal with tight ends releasing into pass patterns. Strong side linebackers have to be able to take on lead blocks and win at the point of attack in the run game, but also be able to cover tight ends in the passing game

That's an aspect of the "Sam" position that he STRUGGLED with, after he was switched to strong-side LB the first time around in that rookie season by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen — who had just replaced the fired Rob Ryan.

Which is why if you happen to be looking at this change made by the staff from the perspective of the 'outside looking in', the decision that was made to move him back to the "Sam" spot (at least for now) seems a bit perplexing to say the least.

But then looking at it from another perspective: it gives Kikaha yet another opportunity to essentially "kick start" his Saints (and NFL) career.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Putting Kikaha as the back-up to Klein will allow him to remain valuable to the team because of his versatility which can provide them with much-needed depth; even if he's actually a better defender with his "hand in the dirt" and rushing the QB as a strong-side defensive end.

But with the team's recent selection in this year's 2018 NFL Draft of University of Texas-San Antonio defensive end Marcus Davenport, Kikaha was pushed further down the depth chart at Right / Strong Side defensive end spot; presumubly behind veteran George Johnson and last year's rookie Trey Hendrickson.

That's probably a big part of the motivation made behind the position change, more than anything.

Otherwise, if he isn't able to adequately fill a designated role and ultimately released or cut, it leaves the team with yet one more player from that 2015 Draft Class that DIDN'T pan out.

That's not something that either GM Mickey Loomis or head coach Sean Payton want added to their résumé, so their is plenty motivation all around, to see Kikaha become successful.

Now it's up to Kikaha, to hold up his end of the bargain. 

And he's been in this position (with his career on the line and much to prove) before and was able to come through with favorable results.

"Only the strong survive" — and Kikaha will have to do just that in these next few weeks and months ahead, or else his time in New Orleans could be over much sooner than it was ever expected..........

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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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