The focus of individual acclaim on the Husky defense has been very second and third-level centric. Guys in the secondary like Sean Parker and increasingly even Marcus Peters are praised for their play, while the entire Husky linebacking corps is the first thing analysts rave about during game coverage. Out of the Husky defensive line, seen as Washington’s weakest defensive unit coming into this season, only junior nose tackle and local product Danny Shelton gets much attention. By the end of this year that is likely to change, as Hau’oli Kikaha, a 6’3″ 250-pound junior defensive end from Hawaii, is beginning to fulfill the potential he flashed early in his Husky career.
Kikaha, formerly known as Jamora before a name change at the beginning of this year, committed to Washington as a three-star defensive line prospect in the Class of 2010. Despite his relatively fanfare-free recruitment, Kikaha played in all 13 games as a true freshman and started the last seven at strongside defensive end. He managed an impressive 48 total tackles, including 7.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks, during a fairly dark time for Husky defense. He was expected to build on his freshman season as a starter in 2011, and at first that appeared to be exactly what he intended to do. After amassing 15 total tackles and a sack in the first three games of ’11, he was lost for the year to a knee injury against Cal. Husky fans (and coaches, for that matter) couldn’t have known at that point that Kikaha would spend the entire rest of the season, and off-season, rehabbing that injury before reinjuring the knee again during fall camp just before the 2012 season.
By the time camp rolled around this past August, Kikaha had become one of those players discussed as a possibility rather than an asset. After missing nearly two entire seasons, fans and even coaches did not seem to be depending on Kikaha’s return, but rather just hoping that his health would hold, as if regaining a solid defensive line starter from the abyss of constant injury would be a bonus.
But, just like Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, Kikaha made it all the way through his rehab, all the way through fall camp, and so far he has made it all the way through the 2013 season as a starter at strongside defensive end. Oh, and he also happens to have 39 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, and six sacks through only eight games. If he continues to put up numbers at that clip, he could find himself on some All-Pac-12 lists by season’s end.
Now, it’s important to note that the vast majority of Kikaha’s sack production has come against two awful teams, Idaho State (three sacks) and California (two sacks). Honestly, that’s not a huge deal. As a strongside end, Kikaha’s primary duty is to serve as a stalwart defender against the run. Pass-rushing is still a large part of his job description, but it isn’t his role to exclusively hunt quarterbacks. That’s on rush ends like Josh Shirley and Cory Littleton.
As long as Kikaha is consistent about tackling ballcarriers for a loss, he is doing his job. Turns out he has only failed to record at least half of a tackle for loss against Oregon and Arizona. In the past two weeks, he has managed 3.5. Clearly he has not only returned to his pre-injury form, he has built upon that foundation despite being physically compromised for most of the past two years, and he appears to be improving as the year goes on. Best of all for Husky fans, he has one more year of eligibility left after this season, meaning that short of an unforeseen and unlikely early departure for the NFL, Kikaha will have another year to fulfill his potential.