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JOB ON THE LINE? For Saints “Hybrid” Defensive End / Linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, Tonight Would Be a Good Time to Shine vs. the Cardinals

It's a widely-held belief in our modern-day society that nothing motivates a man more than being afraid to lose his job or his source of financial income. If that is indeed the case, then it should certainly should apply to 4th year Saints defensive end / strong side linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha against the Arizona Cardinals tonight.

And if Kikaha has any intentions on keeping his current role as a "hybrid" (a player capable of lining at either defensive end or outside linebcker) pass rusher for the team's defense, then tonight's 2nd game of the 2018 Saints Pre-Season would be a good time for him to shine and have the defensive coaching staff take notice.

It's fair to say that Kikaha hasn't quite lived up to expectations; thanks mostly to nagging (maybe more like chronic) injury issues that have plagued him since his arrival in New Orleans after being taken with the #44th selection overall in the 2nd Round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Kikaha entered the NFL on a "high note" as a rookie back during that 2015 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 playing the strong side (better known as the "Sam") linebacker position.

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

But that's not just the only challenge that Kikaha is facing at the moment, thanks to some competition from a fellow defensive player that he shares some very similar playing traits with.

Along with Kikaha, the team also has young veteran and former Packers linebacker Jayrone Elliot taking snaps at the "Sam" spot also, as the Saints are asking them both to rush the passer and audition at strongside linebacker this Summer.

But Elliott has CLEARLY outperformed Kikaha up to this point, thanks mostly in part to his stand-out performance in the Saints' opening Pre-Season win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.

Previously thought to be a "bubble player" to make the team's Final 53-Man Roster after spending a year out of the sport of Pro Football, Elliott turned in a memorable (at least for Pre-Season) performance in his first game in a Saints uniform, recording 2.5 sacks and forcing a pair of fumbles. One of those fumbles was recovered in Jacksonville territory, setting up the go-ahead touchdown in the 4th quarter in the Saints' eventual come-from-behind 24-20 victory.

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Just as Kikaha can, Elliott also has the capability to line-up either as a strongside the team's base 4-3 defensive alignment; but can transition over to stand-up defensive end / EDGE pass rusher in the team's "nickel" substitution packages.

That was where Elliott was lined up when he made the game-changing sack in the win over the Jaguars. More specifically: Elliott possesses outstanding pass-rushing skills which include his notable ability to "bend and dip" past the opponent's offensive left tackle coming off of the outside edge; which ironically are the very same skills that Kikaha has shown previously when he led the entire NCAA in sacks his senior season at Washington back in 2014.

In addition to his performance getting after the quarterback in Jacksonville, Elliott lined up on the 1st-team kickoff and kick return units on Special Teams. 

Saints head  coach Sean Payton has already said that Elliott has to prove that he can play well on Special Teams to secure a Final 53-Man Roster spot; but also acknowledged that is aware of what Elliott can do for the Saints pass rush — meaning that the 26-year old and former University of  Toledo star still has a pretty decent shot at making the team.

Unfortunately for Kikaha, he isn't necessarily all that great as a special teams contributor, while Elliott is. This could be the "difference-maker" in the eyes of Payton and the coaching staff that's needed for Elliott to take this Final 53-Man Roster spot from Kikaha.

However, as previously mentioned: nothing motivates a man more than being afraid to lose his job or his source of financial income, and that fear could be what motivates Kikaha into having a defining performance (maybe tonight?) that convinces the coaching staff to keep him around.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

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.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

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

So it's more than fair to say that in Kikaha's particular case over the course of the past several years, that he's faced adversity before, so the head-to-head competition between himself and Elliott pales in comparison.

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; presumably behind veteran George Johnson and last year's rookie Trey Hendrickson.

That was probably a big part of the motivation made behind the position change to the "hybrid" defensive end / stand-up outside linebacker spot more than anything; and now the impetus is on Kikaha to show that he can still have an impact whether it be as a starter or a key reserve.

Otherwise, at this point it would certainly seem that Kikaha's remaining days in a Saints uniform, are numbered.

Just remember: Hau'oli Kikaha has been in this position (with his career on the line and much to prove) before and was able to come through with favorable results. And now with his job and source of income potentially in jeopardy, tonight would be a good time for him to shine against the Arizona Cardinals.....

Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer 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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