MEATIRIE, La. — Saints defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha often maintains the pleasant disposition of someone kicking back on the north shore of Oahu, even when fielding questions about his ability to bounce back from a third reconstructive knee surgery.
Kikaha appreciates why many would wonder if he can regain peak form following a third left anterior cruciate ligament tear since college, so he doesn’t take offense to the skepticism surrounding his comeback.
The Native Hawaiian and former Washington Husky also relishes the underdog role.
“When you’re the underdog, you always have to come from behind and take what’s yours,” Kikaha said. “Hopefully, it all plays out perfectly and it will be a great story.”
The Saints defense could use some good fortune. The unit has ranked 27th or worse each of the past three seasons. During that time, New Orleans has struggled to consistently apply pressure on quarterbacks, something at which Kikaha thrived at Washington, racking up a single-season school record 19 sacks in his senior season in 2014.
While the Saints were keenly aware of Kikaha’s injury history at Washington — where his first two ACL tears occurred — his ability to come back from those and set sack records convinced New Orleans that he was worth a 2015 second-round pick .
Kikaha had a promising rookie season, starting 10 of 15 games in which he played — all at outside linebacker in what was then a 3-4 defensive front. He was in on 50 tackles with four sacks, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. New Orleans was eager to see his growth in his second season, only to lose him for the year during a voluntary offseason workout last June.
Now New Orleans has Kikaha lining up as a pass-rushing defensive end in a scheme that currently features four down linemen and three linebackers in its base formation. During practice in full pads Monday at Saints training camp, Kikaha, who’s been wearing a protective brace on his left knee, received snaps with the first-team defense.
“He works his butt off every day. The whole offseason he was up here nonstop,” said Saints defensive assistant Brian Young, who oversees New Orleans’ pass rush. “There’s no doubt in his mind he’s going to be better than what he was before the injury.
“We’re super glad he’s back,” Young added. “We love having him around because he’s always got a smile on his face. He has fun out there. Guys respond to him.”
Coach Sean Payton also has praised Kikaha’s work ethic, recalling an instance this offseason in which he ran into Kikaha at team headquarters when the building was virtually empty at 9:30 on a Sunday night.
“The first battle is just getting the snaps and getting on the field, so he’s doing a good job there,” Payton said.
Fellow defensive end Cam Jordan said Kikaha, “looks great,” complimenting a spin move Kikaha exhibited during a recent practice.
“He wants to be on the field so bad and you can feel it,” Jordan said.
Asked how close his knee is to being fully healed, Kikaha said, “I don’t think very far at all.”
“Really, it’s just proving it,” Kikaha said. “I feel like I can do things physically I’ve done in the past and might be a little better at some things mentally.
“I’ve experienced this before with this same exact injury,” Kikaha continued. “I feel great. And I felt great in the past (after rehabbing the previous two). I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything. In fact, each time I felt like I gained a little.”
To Kikaha, ACL repairs are now routine for top surgeons. The real issue, Kikaha said, is the lengthy and painful rehabilitation, and the mental commitment required to get through it.
“I’ve just noticed the difference in guys that were successful regaining form and guys that were not,” Kikaha said. “It all depends on the individual circumstances and how they feel mentally.”
Kikaha said he draws motivation from reflecting on his love of football, along with his desire to help his team and family.
“I’ve got to keep focused on that,” he said, “or I will be out, like a bunch of guys have ended up.”
Notes: CB Delvin Breaux missed Monday’s practice. Payton said it was because of an injury, but the coach emphasized that he was going to try to stick to his preseason policy of not disclosing specific injury information. … LB Stephone Anthony returned to practice Monday after leaving the field during Sunday’s practice. … RB Travaris Cadet also missed practice.