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Finally back on field, Jon Beason wants to “re-establish” himself

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

Jon Beason had pieces of grass stuck to his shoulders after football practice Monday afternoon. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face. He was breathing hard. And he was grinning.

“You know what?” Beason said. “I’m just happy to be back out there. I don’t care about what shape I’m in, what I do right, what I do wrong – I just miss the grind. Being with my teammates, man. Messing around. Hanging in the huddle. You know what I mean? It’s long overdue.”

Anyone who has ever played a team sport knows what he means. Beason was once the cornerstone of the Panthers’ defense. He was nicknamed “The Beast.” He was Luke Kuechly before Kuechly ever put on a Carolina uniform.

But Beason has been pushed to the shadows the past two seasons by serious injuries. He has missed 27 of a possible 32 games after he signed a five-year, $51.5million contract extension before the 2011 season

So now the three-time Pro Bowler must be content with small steps. He practiced Sunday in pads for the first time since microfracture surgery on his right knee last October.

Then he practiced again Monday – on a wet field – and looked fast. He intercepted Jimmy Clausen during a team drill. He ran extra sprints after practice. He said he would love to play against Baltimore on Thursday night in the third exhibition, although it’s questionable whether that will happen.

Mostly, Beason said, he wanted to re-establish himself as a player whose devastating, sideline-to-sideline speed was as good as it got for NFL linebackers in 2008-10 (his Pro Bowl years).

“You want to get back to the person you used to be,” he said. “You’ve got to get over that fear. A lot of guys are afraid of it. But if it feels good, I’m going, and I’m going to go hard.”

People tend to grade Beason on a curve these days. As in, “He looks fast, especially considering he’s missed most of the past two seasons.”

Beason doesn’t buy that. He knows he’s not as fast as he wants to be yet. He’s also adjusting to a new position – weakside linebacker – to accommodate Kuechly’s ascendance as a middle linebacker who simply is too good to move. That takes time. He is pointed toward starting Sept.8 in the regular-season home opener, and anything before that is a bonus.

He has looked good enough the past two days that he already has coach Ron Rivera talking about “getting creative” in various ways to keep Beason and fellow outside linebacker Thomas Davis on the field more often.

“As Jon gets stronger and better and better,” Rivera said Monday, “we’ll have to find a role other than just being our starting (weakside linebacker) because he’s such a dynamic player. We have to find ways to … keep those three guys on the field as much as possible.

“What it does mean is we’ve got to be a little bit creative. … Whether it’s three down linemen and three linebackers, or two down linemen, three linebackers, five DBs (with Beason as the 11th player in that mix). We’ve got to really explore the possibilities, especially if he’s going to be as productive as he has been in the past.”

Can he ever be that productive again? Can a player once known for his durability – Beason started 64 straight games in 2007-10 – stay healthy?

“You know what’s funny?” Beason said. “We never play healthy. Every Sunday you’ve got something going on. A bruise or something. … Sometimes that pain is the new normal, you just kind of get used to it.”

That’s where Beason finds himself now. His previous shoulder problems? Not a problem. But his legs? That’s where he makes his living. They let him down in 2011 and 2012. Now, they must hold up.

“The wings are never an issue,” Beason said. “It’s the wheels that get you.”

For now, Beason has got the wheels back. And when he’s got his wheels back, the whole defense gets a jolt.

The question everyone holds their breath and asks is this: Are the wheels going to come off again?

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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