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Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis' return emotional

Linebacker Thomas Davis needed a moment.

He was standing on the practice field at Wofford this week, having just concluded the final padded practice of training camp, and Davis was asked what it will mean to him to be on the field Friday night against the Miami Dolphins.

Davis hasn't played in a game since Nov. 8, 2009 when he injured his knee against New Orleans. Then he reinjured the same knee last year, costing him a full season.

It has been a long 21 months.

"Words can't even describe how much this game is going to mean to me," he said.

"After being out a year and a half, being away from football, being away from my teammates, it's been tough for me. But this Friday is going to feel ... man."

Davis received a new five-year, $35.5 million contract after the lockout. However, only the first year, worth $8 million, is guaranteed.

He is part of the Panthers' strong suit -- a starting linebacking group that includes Jon Beason and James Anderson. Davis has the potential to be a dominating presence. He was on his way to a Pro Bowl season before the injury in 2009, his 18-tackle performance in the season opener against Philadelphia evidence of his impact.

Defensive end Charles Johnson says Davis "is fast like a running back."

New coach Ron Rivera has already seen what Davis can mean to the Panthers beyond his physical presence on the field.

"He's a very confident football player," Rivera said. "He knows his abilities and he's got a toughness about him that helps.

"He brings a little explosiveness to that group. I'm excited to see him on the football field, I really am."

Davis is wearing a brace on his twice-injured right knee as a precaution. He's still getting accustomed to it but said it hasn't affected his speed.

There was a moment of concern during training camp when he developed a foot problem, briefly sidelining him. The problem, he said, might have been the result of being out of cleats for so long. It kept him out of the exhibition opener Saturday against the New York Giants.

Everything is fine now, said Davis, who will wear special orthodics in his shoes.

"I can tell you I feel great," he said. "I'm out here moving around, doing everything everybody else is doing.

"I've been out there competing against everybody else. Now I'm competing against myself. I know Beason (sidelined with Achilles tendinitis) is coming back soon so I've got to be ready when that guy gets back."

Without Davis and Beason, the Panthers' defense held the Giants' offense without a touchdown Saturday night. It was a base version of what will be the Carolina defense under Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott.

The exhibition against the Dolphins should give a clearer picture of what will be the regular Panthers defense, though Beason isn't expected to play.

"What I saw Saturday night was very exciting," Davis said. "We only had three true starters out there, guys that have started on this team before, so it was very exciting to see those guys go out and bust their butts and perform very well against the Giants."

This week, Davis gets to be a part of it. He said he felt nervous when he pulled on his pads for the first time in the preseason, but that disappeared soon after the hitting started. Now, it's about containing his excitement.

"I cannot wait until I can (hit) someone other than my teammates," Davis said.