Pass Rusher Profile: Hau'oli Kikaha
After a spectacular 2013 season Cameron Jordan took a small step back in 2014 and with question marks over the future of Junior Galette, the New Orleans Saints needed a boost to their pass rush in this year’s draft. In the second round they took a flier on a tremendously productive stand up pass rusher who has a history of knee injuries. Hau’oli Kikaha was part of a star studded defense for the Washington Huskies last season, their most productive pass rusher and a man who finished second to Nate Orchard with 20 sacks.
The Saints two-pronged attack is centered on two hand-down pass rushers at present, but Kikaha will bring a wealth of experience of as a stand up pass rusher (only 12 pass rushes last season from a three-point stance) to the Saints’ defense which may allow Rob Ryan to introduce more genuine hybrid looks.
Kikaha was widely lauded as a “high motor” pass rusher and that is highlighted by his profile above showing a high number of pressures recorded in clean up and pursuit. That doesn’t even factor in that a number of his 30 pressures that came by beating pass protectors to the outside were as much about an unwillingness to quit as his ability to simply beat a blocker with athleticism and technique.
People might often seek the athlete who can win with his speed or his power, but a player like Kikaha wins consistently with a blend of natural traits and a desire and work rate that can be as hard to replicate as natural physical ability.
Unsurprisingly for a player who racked up 62 pressures last season, Kikaha was productive regardless of the down for the Huskies in 2014, but even still, he got more productive with every single down. His peak on third downs (with 26 pressures on 126 pass rushes) is highlighted by his ability to get after the quarterback regardless of the yards to go for the defense.
Part of this may be the freedom he was given to rush the passer at the expense of his run defense as much as his ability, but he still showed a remarkable ability to get the job done regardless of the third-down situation. Kikaha even added a pair of sacks on fourth downs last season to definitively see the opposition off the field.
Kikaha is being widely viewed as a sub-package, pass-rush specialist for the Saints this season and that would certainly set him free to replicate his playing style from his senior season with the Huskies. Putting Kikaha into obvious passing situations should liberate him to replicate some of the more gaudy numbers you can see here from his production against deeper drops and longer holds by the quarterback in terms of time from snap to release.
You expect pass rushers to capitalize on these situations, but the extent to which Kikaha exploited them is astonishing. His Pass Rushing Productivity against seven-step drops was bettered only (just) by Michael Odiari of Texas State (Sun Belt) with only Dante Fowler and James Vaughters in close company from the bigger conferences.
There may be concerns over Kikaha’s ability to defend the run and stay healthy for the long term but his ability to get after the quarterback as a specialist pass rusher should boost the Saints and concern the less-than-stellar offensive lines in the rest of the NFC South.
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