SEATTLE — He’s a football player, and a pretty good one, so Hau’oli Kikaha’s personal expectations will always demand excellence, no matter the circumstances.
But he’s also grounded enough to stop and appreciate the fact that he’s even playing.
“This is a little bit of a shock to me, just in that a year ago I wasn’t playing, and a year before that I wasn’t playing,” Kikaha said after Washington’s practice Tuesday. “So to be able to get the opportunity to play, and play consistently throughout this year, has been a blessing. Every day I’m just like, ‘Yay, I get to play.’ ”
The Huskies are likewise pleased with the re-emergence of the fourth-year junior defensive end, who leads the team with six sacks after sitting out the 2012 season and most of his sophomore season in 2011 with anterior cruciate ligament injuries.
Kikaha recorded three sacks as a true freshman, all the way back in 2010, when his last name was Jamora – he changed it for family reasons this season – and the Huskies finished the season with 28 sacks.
Through eight games this year, they’re tied for 14th in the country with 24. And Kikaha is a big part of that, using his speed and agility from his end position to pressure quarterbacks.
Cal freshman Jared Goff went down twice at Kikaha’s hands Saturday, when UW totaled five sacks – and should have had a couple more if not for missed tackles in the backfield.
“It first starts with the effort that he plays with for the majority of the game and the majority of practice,” second-year defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi said. “So it all starts there. He takes it serious, and he’s on, I believe, a constant kind of weekly grind to get better. It all starts with his effort. He plays with tremendous effort and it shows up on tape, for the most part.”
The left knee, Kikaha says, feels fine after two ACL surgeries. He was unsure at times during the rehabilitation process where he’d fit into UW’s defense upon his return, but those concerns seem to have been left in the training room.
“I can’t really gauge compared to what it was before because it’s been two years since I’ve been normal,” he said, narrating scare quotes around the word ‘normal.’ “So I just feel great. That’s all I know.”
His health has been essential to the Huskies’ pass rush, which has been spotty against tougher teams. It’s not a coincidence that UW’s two best pass-rushing games have come against its weakest two opponents – Idaho State and California – with the Huskies accumulating half of their season sack total (12 of 24) in those games alone.
Kikaha himself recorded five of his six sacks in those games. In others, there have been struggles. And so he is quick to acknowledge that improvement is necessary.
As is defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
“It’s improved. Could always be better,” Wilcox said. “Sometimes pass rush is sacks, sometimes it’s hurries, sometimes it’s keeping a cage on the quarterback. So there’s certain areas we can definitely continue to improve in.”
With the Huskies on a bye this week, younger players get a chance to take more repetitions during practice. And while Kikaha doesn’t necessarily enjoy missing reps, he does like seeing how the freshmen and sophomores are developing.
“It’s a good chance to see what the young guys are learning because they follow us, and it shows what our leadership does for them,” Kikaha said. “So we can kind of gauge how well we’re doing as leaders for them and helping them, and where they’re capable of being.”email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple