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Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart returns from ‘jailhouse’ to sarcastic ovation

Jonathan Stewart hadn’t played or practiced since Nov. 26, 2012, when he injured his right ankle against Philadelphia.

So here he was Tuesday, out of the jailhouse (Stewart’s term) and onto the field. Coach Ron Rivera said something about Stewart’s “fresh legs” and players responded by offering Stewart a standing ovation.

Was the ovation kind of sarcastic?

“It was sarcastic,” Rivera says.

Despite practicing, Stewart remains on the Physically Unable to Perform list. He was eligible to play Sunday against St. Louis but his ankle refused to comply.

Stewart won’t play Thursday against Tampa Bay. If the ankle holds, he’ll return Nov. 3 against Atlanta.

The jailhouse is where Stewart has been. Teammates prepare for the next game. Stewart runs and pulls sleds.

“We call it the jailhouse because you’re in confinement, dedicated to rehabilitation,” says Stewart, 26.

And now you’re back in society.

“And now I’m back in society,” Stewart says.

Fans have long wanted Stewart freed. He’s 5-10 and 235 pounds, runs hard, breaks tackles and catches passes. While injured, he remained one of the guys, still a member of the fraternity.

But he wasn’t.

“You’re not going through the blood, sweat and tears, the practices and the game time,” says Stewart. “Of course you’re part of the team. (But) I can only encourage, I can only support my teammates in the meeting room and stuff like that. So that’s the only disconnect you feel.”

Another disconnect: Stewart won’t start. He had supplanted Williams as the starter last season. But when he went down Williams thrived. Williams is the NFL’s 11th leading rusher this season and will continue to start.

Fullback Mike Tolbert, who was ignored last season, has found a role as a short-yardage power runner and blocker and scorer. With three touchdowns he’s tied for the team lead with Steve Smith.

Tolbert also leads the Panthers in dances. As Stewart talks to reporters Tuesday Tolbert does a touchdown dance behind them, trying to make Stewart left.

So if Williams and Tolbert start, and Stewart gives Williams an occasional break, where does rookie Kenjon Barner fit? Barner, who had sprained his foot, also is healthy again.

“There’s still a role for Kenjon,” says Rivera. “There’s some things he does that neither of the other two guys do.”

Rivera talks about Barner’s speed and quickness and the matchup problems he creates as a receiver.

“Ideally what you’d like to do is see him develop very much like a Darren Sproles,” says Rivera, talking about the speedy, pass-catching New Orleans back. “And Kenjon has a lot of time to grow and learn and develop. Darren didn’t become Darren Sproles over night so we’ve got time and we’ve got patience.”

Sproles didn’t become Darren Sproles until his third season. There is, however, a major difference between the backs. Sproles is 5-6. Barner is 5-9. If they get together on the playground, Barner posts him up. Sproles’ team would have to use a zone.

How do you find work for all four backs without undermining the rhythm of the starters?

“The thing that we have to remember is we don’t have to use them all,” Rivera says.

Stewart needed to be used Tuesday. He needed to ditch the sled, run to the huddle and hear the sarcastic applause of teammates.

“He had his game face on,” says quarterback Cam Newton.

Adds Newton: Stewart will want to prove that he’s the player everybody remembers.

“It just felt good to be out there and have them welcome me and encourage me,” says Stewart.

The wait was rough; he’s supposed to play football, not watch it.

“But God taught me a lot of things, taught me a lot about myself,” says Stewart. “I don’t regret the process that I’ve gone through.”

Freedom is sweet.