Saints counting on rookies Hau'oli Kikaha, Davis Tull to add pressure on defense



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METAIRIE, Louisiana — One of the factors in New Orleans' struggles last season was its inability to get to the quarterback.

And as the sacks dropped from 49 in 2013 to just 34 in 2014, it became clear the Saints' roster lacked depth in the number of players who could pressure the quarterback.

It didn't take long for New Orleans to rectify that situation this offseason.

Seven of the Saints' nine picks in the draft were on defense, including edge-rushing specialists Hau'oli Kikaha and Davis Tull in the second and fifth rounds, respectively.

Just one day into New Orleans' rookie minicamp, coach Sean Payton already was praising Kikaha, the nation's FBS leader in sacks as a senior at Washington in 2014.

"You've got a crystal-clear vision right away," Payton said. "You know exactly what you're getting with the player. He's smart, he's tough, there's a passion to how he plays and you see it out here."

Kikaha finished his career with 36 sacks, including 19 as a senior and 13 as a junior. He was prolific in his final two years in spite of a season-ending torn left anterior cruciate ligament in 2011 that kept him out of football in 2012 after he tore the ligamentous graft during preseason camp.

The 2014 first-team All-American, who is 6-foot-2, 253 pounds, is working as the strong side linebacker and doesn't necessarily feel pigeonholed as a pass rusher, however.

"I think when given the opportunity, anyone can grow into something else," Kikaha said. "If you hold them in a box, that's where they'll stay. I'm glad to be given this opportunity and I've always wanted to expand my role as a player and here it is."

Tull, meanwhile, will be competing on two different fronts to prove that his 37 career sacks weren't a result of inferior competition.

The 6-foot-2, 246-pound linebacker played at FCS school Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he finished the past three seasons with at least 52 tackles. As a senior, he had 58 tackles, including 18 for a loss, and 10½ sacks on his way to earning All-American status for the second consecutive season.

He also isn't participating in rookie minicamp because of a shoulder injury, which required surgery nearly two months ago.

"I think at the end of the day, everyone is driven in the NFL," Tull said. "If you aren't driven, you wouldn't be here. But I hope it does give me a little bit of an extra edge, knowing that having it taken away from me and knowing what it's worth, it's worth a lot."

Despite the shoulder injury, Payton sees Tull being able to make the transition.

"With him, I think his testing helped him because he's someone who really tested well along with having college production," Payton said. "It was an attractive fit when we drafted him."

New Orleans hopes both players are successful. Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan, the two veteran pass rush specialists on the roster, had their sack totals decrease in 2014. And the Saints finished in the bottom third of the league in sacks per pass attempt in 2014.

Kikaha knows the job won't just be handed to him, however.

"I hope that I can continue to rush the passer well," he said. "Whoever is the best man at rushing the passer is going to get out on the field. My job is to compete and that's what I'll do."


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