SAN FRANCISCO — Thoughtful and relaxed while answering questions inside the Field Club Lounge at AT&T Park on Monday afternoon, Hau’oli Kikaha displayed the kind of outlook that matches what coaches and teammates have been saying about him all season.
Interim coach Marques Tuiasosopo calls the junior defensive end “the heart and soul” of the University of Washington’s defense, and perhaps the entire team.
That term, of course, is on Page One of the coach-speak handbook. And when asked, senior quarterback Keith Price acknowledges it is difficult to avoid platitudes when evaluating Kikaha’s work ethic.
They’re accurate, he says.
“The first guy in the weight room and the last guy to leave every day,” Price said of Kikaha. “I know it sounds a bit cliché, but that’s Hau’oli Kikaha. That’s how he is, and I don’t see him changing.”
But plenty has changed for Kikaha during what turned out to be an eventful 2013 season. First, he changed his last name. It used to be Jamora, but he made the switch to honor his mother’s side of the family.
Then, he used fall camp to work his way back into the starting lineup after missing all but four games the past two seasons with major injuries — anterior cruciate ligament tears, twice, in his left knee — and wound up being one of the Pac-12 Conference’s most productive pass-rushers.
His 10 sacks are tied for second in the conference and landed him a second-team All-Pac-12 spot. He was also awarded the team’s defensive MVP award at UW’s end-of-year banquet.
“Most people who have 10 sacks, people know about them,” Tuiasosopo said. “I don’t know how many people know about Hau’oli.”
There he was Monday, though, one of three UW players made available for interviews in advance of Friday’s Fight Hunger Bowl against Brigham Young.
“I’m grateful, first of all, to be given all those opportunities,” Kikaha said, “as far as getting help to get back right and healthy and to play consecutively this entire season, game after game. And then also to be playing on the defense with a ton of talent and just great ballplayers around myself has contributed to my success on the field.”
He proceeded to name almost every one of the Huskies’ defensive starters, crediting them for much of what he was able to accomplish this season.
Kikaha said Tosh Lupoi, UW’s defensive line coach, also deserves credit for his renaissance.
“Coach Lupoi is very detailed,” he said. “He’s a huge effort guy, and great on technique and manipulating the tiniest details of the defensive front, as far as movements or pass-rushing games, stunts and things like that.”
It wasn’t easy. After first injuring his left knee four games into the 2011 season, Kikaha did it again during camp in 2012, forcing him to sit out all of last season.
Rehabilitation wasn’t fun. But, Kikaha said, “the mental struggle, I guess, was a little bit more difficult the second time around, but also a bit more motivating because the odds are against you. That’s when you really find out what you’re made of. So the second time around is just like all or nothing. So every day was that type of mentality where you either give it your all or you stay at home.”
And maybe it’s that past perseverance that has Kikaha relatively unconcerned about what the future holds for his position group, which will more than likely be coached by its third group of assistants in four years.
It’s unknown where Lupoi might end up after recent allegations of recruiting violations, which he has denied. UW is still investigating.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who in 2012 replaced Nick Holt, might also be headed to USC with former UW coach Steve Sarkisian.
Kikaha doesn’t seem worried.
“As a unit, you already know that regardless of who’s coming in and what kind of scheme they’re bringing in, the plays are going to be similar to what we already had,” Kikaha said. “The only thing that would change is the vocabulary they use, basically memorizing signals and things like that. So learning a whole new language, and then getting used to whatever the defensive coordinator likes to call. But other than that, we’re running and hitting. It’s all relative.”
Kikaha also said he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of pursuing a sixth season of eligibility, for which he would have to petition the NCAA at the end of next season, which will be his fifth at UW. Typically, sixth-year waivers are granted to players who miss two full seasons of competition because of injury.
Kikaha, remember, missed all but four games in two seasons.
“I’ve actually put some thought into it,” he said. “We’ll see how this next year goes. The goal of coming to college is to get a good education, to get a good job, good career. Or to get a good football career and make it big in the NFL. So both of those things, the long-term goal is to be successful monetarily and take care of your family. If I’m not fit to do that after next season in one way, then I’ll use the next mode of transportation to get there.”christian.caple@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple