JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the entertainment world, an actor or musician often needs that one break, that one moment of exposure in front of the right person, to go from playing on small stages and honky-tonks to the big time. Stars are born this way every day.
Sunday’s AFC Championship Game at New England could be that break for Yannick Ngakoue.
The Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end isn’t a household name outside this city. He’s somewhat lost on a roster full of defensive stars such as fellow end Calais Campbell, tackle Malik Jackson and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. But Ngakoue has been playing like a star almost from the day he arrived in 2016 as a third-round pick out of Maryland. He had eight sacks as a rookie, followed by 12 this season.
Ngakoue led the NFL this season in forced fumbles with six, and four of those were turned into touchdowns. Of the Jaguars’ eight defensive touchdowns — including the playoffs — Ngakoue had a hand in five. His strip-sack of Ben Roethlisberger — which linebacker Telvin Smith turned it into a 50-yard touchdown — in last Sunday’s divisional playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers is a big reason the Jaguars are still playing.
One could call Ngakoue the master of strip sacks. But because Ngakoue plays in the NFL’s smallest market, for an organization that didn’t have a national prime-time game this season, and was snubbed by the Pro Bowl, the 22-year-old is relatively unknown outside of Jacksonville and offensive coordinators preparing to face him.
Sunday could change all that.
“He definitely deserves more credit and national exposure,” linebacker Myles Jack said. “I don’t know if it’s because he has an exotic name that people can’t pronounce. But people definitely will be on Yannick. People will be wearing 91 jerseys for sure.”
For the record, the name is pronounced “yah-NEEK in-GAH-kway.” Remember it.
“Now that he has the stage where everybody is watching you, he can show everybody who he is,” Jackson said. “He can show everybody why he’s better than the defensive ends like the Joey Bosas of the world and everybody else. I think for him it’s a huge chance to showcase his talents.”
For that, Ngakoue is grateful.
“The bar it sets is a great time to make plays, help your team win, and we could be a part of history, get your name etched in stone,” he said. “Definitely a blessing to be in this position.”
Bosa, the third overall pick in the 2016 draft by the Los Angeles Chargers, looks like a star at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds. He made the Pro Bowl this season with 12.5 sacks.
Campbell, a monster of a defender at 6-8, 300 pounds, also looks like a star. He is also a Pro Bowler with 14.5 sacks.
Ngahoue looks as if he should be an outside linebacker or safety at 6-2, 246. He pales in size compared to most of the tackles he has to beat. Out of uniform, he doesn’t look like a star anything.
Just don’t underestimate him.
“Size only matters so much,” Campbell said. “What it comes down to is using your tools, what God gave you. He knows what his weaknesses are, and he tries to strengthen his weaknesses.
“It makes him a really good player.”
It’s that “little-man syndrome,” as one of his teammates put it, that drives Ngakoue. It’s his so-called chip that always has him trying to prove he’s better than anybody else.
“Yan’s just passion,” nose tackle Abry Jones said. “He’s got a deep, deep, deep passion for the game. And he has a great way of focusing things, to put things against himself to lock himself in even more.
“From day one, he wasn’t scared of nobody. He didn’t care who was in front of him. He knew he was the guy for the job, and he came out and took it.”
Ngakoue’s focus Sunday is to take out New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Do that on the big stage and he will turn even more heads. He’s actually had dreams of chasing down Brady — and not just recently.
“I was young, probably 7, 8 years old, watching ‘America’s Game’ with just some underwear on, running around the house breaking lights,” Ngakoue said. “My mom would come home, cussing me out from work.
“But it’s worth it. It’s surreal [to be facing Brady].”
Ngakoue had a surreal moment last week.
“Seeing Ben Roethlisberger making checks against me, ‘Watch No. 91,’ ” he said. “That’s surreal right there.”
It’s also reality. Quarterbacks have to watch out for Ngakoue if they plan to survive.
“He’s going to put pressure on any quarterback in the NFL,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “On the biggest stage, he’s still going to shine bright.”
You might be surprised what NFL player Ngakoue strived to be like growing up.
“Walter Payton,” he said without hesitation. “I used to watch his film all the time, just the way he played, the way he ran the ball, physicality, aggressiveness, and off the field, his impact off the field. So definitely Walter Payton was a person I really wanted to model myself after.”
“Sweetness,” as the late Hall of Fame running back was known, had a physicality and unstoppable motor about him that few defenders could match. Ngakoue brings that same attitude from the end position.
“He just wants to be great so bad,” Jack said. “He wants to be his generation’s Dwight Freeney or Von Miller. He wants to be one of those guys that is etched in history. You can see it every day. He works his ass off. He treats practice like it’s a game. He takes care of his body. He does everything right.
“I wish I could do everything right like he does. He’s going to get the recognition he deserves.”
Miller had two strip sacks two years ago in Super Bowl 50 that were pivotal in the Denver Broncos‘ win over the Carolina Panthers. They led to 14 points in a 24-10 victory and elevated Miller to another stratosphere.
Ngakoue has the same type of ability to take over a game even if he’s not as well known.
“I’m the best at doing what I do, as far as getting the ball out,” Ngakoue said. “I don’t get as much notoriety, I guess being a third-round pick, but I feel like my numbers speak for [themselves].”
Now the rest of the world will get a chance to see it.
“It’s going to be great,” defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said. “The whole world is watching. If he goes out and shows what he’s about, they’re going to respect him and know his name.”