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Jaguars’ Yannick Ngakoue lets his play do the talking

Defensive end has been a game-changer, but he’ll hesitate to tell you that

Talk to Yannick Ngakoue about the Jacksonville Jaguars’ surprising season and the standout defensive end will steer the conversation to all the right places. Ngakoue focuses on the bond he shares with his teammates, who have produced the franchise’s best record since 2007. He repeatedly praises his cohorts along a defensive line that’s as good as it gets. And Ngakoue expresses thanks for merely being a part of what the Jaguars are building.

What Ngakoue rarely mentions, however, is his role in helping to turn around a team that has been a hot mess for years. The fact is, Ngakoue is a game-changer for Jacksonville, which has won its first AFC South title since 1999.

In only his second season, the edge-rushing monster has emerged as one of the league’s most disruptive players. Ngakoue has been so consistently impressive, it’s a downright head-scratcher that he wasn’t selected to the Pro Bowl. But Ngakoue isn’t the type to complain. Besides, the Jaguars’ opponents know he’s among the NFL’s best at his position, and Ngakoue is reveling in being part of a winner.

“I’m definitely excited the way everything is going,” said Ngakoue. “We have a lot of key pieces. The chemistry is definitely there, and everything is rolling the right way.

“We’re really growing. After only winning three games last season, we have so many guys who are getting it done. It makes you just want to work hard, do your job and not let anyone down.”

Ngakoue has performed spectacularly.

He’s tied for fifth in the league with 12 sacks, contributing significantly to Jacksonville’s total of 55, which ranks second in the league. And no one in the NFL is better at forcing fumbles: Ngakoue tops the list with six.

Listed at 6-foot-2, 246 pounds, Ngakoue isn’t a particularly big guy to play end in a 4-3 alignment. In contrast, Calais Campbell, who plays opposite Ngakoue, is a 300-pounder. But what Ngakoue lacks in size he makes up for by “being aggressive for my size and having a knack for getting to the ball,” he said. “Not just rushing the passer, but also against the run, I go get the ball.

“I make game-changing plays to help my team win, which is getting the ball out. Each time you do, you give your offense more chances. The more chances your offense has, the more chances to get points. So whenever I get past tackles and I see the quarterback trying to throw, I just go straight for the ball. That’s what’s always on my mind: Take the ball away. That’s the way I play.”

A third-round draft pick (69th overall) out of Maryland in 2016, Ngakoue had a strong rookie season. He played in all 16 games, starting 15, and totaled eight sacks. Brian Stewart expected big things from Ngakoue.

Maryland’s defensive coordinator from 2012 through 2014, Stewart helped recruit Ngakoue, whose father is from Cameroon. After watching Ngakoue work early in his freshman season, Stewart realized the Terrapins signed a winner.

“Yannick was a must-have recruit for us, but you really don’t know if you got it right until you get them on campus. As soon as he got to Maryland, yeah, I knew,” said Stewart, who just completed his first season as defensive coordinator at Rice University.

“He doesn’t have any poor habits. He goes full speed all the time. And a lot of times, the best guy isn’t the biggest guy, the fastest guy or the guy with the best technique. It’s the guy who simply outworks other guys. That’s Yannick.”

In 2007 and 2008, Stewart was the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. Those two seasons, DeMarcus Ware combined for 34 sacks. Stewart used Ngakoue similarly to how Ware operated with Dallas, and “I learned a lot from Coach Stew,” said Ngakoue, who as a junior at Maryland set a school record with 13 sacks. “Coach Stew did a lot for me when I was just a young pup.

“Coach Stew taught me a lot of stuff about pass rushing. He taught me how to attack and how to best use my ability to get to the quarterback. He put me in a lot of great situations. He put me in the same role that he used to use D-Ware in with those Dallas defenses. What that did was put me in position to make plays and show what I could do at the next level.”

At football’s highest level, Ngakoue is an integral part of a defense ranked second overall and first against the pass. Four Jaguars were voted to the Pro Bowl. Surprisingly, Ngakoue didn’t make the cut.

“I’m happy for my teammates,” he said. “I just feel like I should have been there too.”

Although Ngakoue doesn’t require extra incentive to play hard, he wouldn’t be the first player to take his game to a higher level after being snubbed in Pro Bowl voting. The Jaguars finished the regular season Sunday with a 15-10 loss on the road against the Tennessee Titans in which Ngakoue returned a fumble 67 yards for a touchdown. They’ll play their first postseason game in 10 seasons when they host the Buffalo Bills at 1 p.m. Sunday.

The team had a rough performance two weeks ago in a 44-33 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson and cornerback Aaron Colvin got into it on the sideline and had to be separated. Even during the best of times, teammates sometimes mix it up.

“I’m fully confident in this group,” Ngakoue said. “I feel our defensive line is the best in the league. I feel we bring a lot of tools to the game that helps us win a lot of games. I feel our defense will be fine. We’ve shown what we can do.”

Ngakoue has much more to show. And the playoffs will provide him with a great stage.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.