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John DeShazier: Saints linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha showing nose for the ball in first two starts

Posted Sep 24, 2015

Second-round pick has forced a fumble in each game

The gleaming sack total perhaps blinded observers to another, critical element of the package.

New Orleans Saints rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha posted a nation-leading, school-record 19 sacks in his final season at the University of Washington, and his total of 36 put him atop the all-time list as a Husky.

That made him a logical pick – second round, No. 44 overall – for a Saints team that was hoping to land an impact pass rusher or two in the 2015 NFL draft.

But Kikaha also forced three fumbles last year at Washington, and a total of seven while he was in college. And that aspect of his game, too, has transitioned to the NFL so far.

Kikaha has forced a fumble, which the Saints recovered, in each of his first two NFL games, making the rookie a bright spot for an 0-2 team which hopes to break into the victory column Sunday, when the Saints play Carolina (2-0) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

There also have been 12 tackles and a sack for the smiling, soft-spoken rookie, who apparently carries a big stick.

“There’s some snaps that you saw on his college film, but it’s been great for him to demonstrate it at this level,” Coach Sean Payton said. “And I think it’s good for our players to see.

“It’s something we’re coaching and it’s something that, I think, is more a part of the game than it ever has been. It actually was a factor last week – we got some short-field opportunities, and the same happened to us.”

Neither of Kikaha’s forced fumbles led to a Saints score.

Against Arizona in the season opener, he caught up to running back Andre Ellington during a 10-yard run in the third quarter and poked away the football, which cornerback Delvin Breaux caught in flight. But the Saints committed a turnover on the ensuing possession, when Drew Brees’ pass for Marques Colston bounced off Colston’s hands and into the grasp of Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson.

Against Tampa Bay, Kikaha recorded his first sack of the season, a 2-yard loss of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston in the fourth quarter, and dislodged the ball in the process. Linebacker Kasim Edebali recovered at the Buccaneers 25-yard line but after the drive stalled, kicker Zach Hocker missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt.

Still, the rookie employed some of the tactics that he has been taught and has studied in order to force the turnovers.

“Some of the older guys (I saw do it), the first one that comes to mind is (late Cardinals safety) Pat Tillman – he was really good at it,” Kikaha said. “So there’s something to that, that we all are trying to learn. It’s something that’s important to the game, if you can take the ball away.

“Right now it’s just reaction. If you practice it so many times within the course of a week, when you get to the game, you punch it out or you pull it out, depending on what your angle is.”

Angles, hustle, strength – so far, Kikaha has put them all to good use.

The result is that, with 14 games remaining, he already is one forced fumble short of achieving the number that led the team last season (three, by Junior Galette). Malcolm  Jenkins and Cam Jordan tied for the team lead with two in 2013, and Jordan led the team with three in 2012.

“Our coaches, starting with Coach Payton and (defensive coordinator) Coach Rob (Ryan), they harp on it every day and we do a lot of drills that pertain to stripping the ball and punching it out,” Kikaha said.

In the rookie, they’ve found a willing and able student – one whose resume already suggested that he was capable for those who could look past the shine.

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