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Panthers LB Shaq Thompson: 'It's just my time to shine'

Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson led Carolina starters with 12 tackles during the preseason. Jim Dedmon/USA Today Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Captain Munnerlyn tried to trick reporters this week as they filtered into the Carolina Panthers locker room.

"Thomas Davis!" the veteran cornerback shouted toward the locker next to his in the far left corner of the room. "What are you doing, Thomas? TAAAAAAA-mas!"

Davis didn't answer.

The locker was empty.

The outside linebacker is suspended for the first four games, so he won't be allowed inside Bank of America Stadium until the week before the Oct. 14 game at Washington.

Munnerlyn will miss Davis, particularly the intensity the 35-year-old brings to practice and the trash-talking the former Georgia star does on and off the field. His shoes will be big to fill, but the Panthers began planning for a moment such as this in 2015, when they drafted Shaq Thompson in the first round out of the University of Washington.

"Because in 2014 we had a game at Baltimore when Thomas didn't play, and we lacked that outright speed at linebacker other than Luke [Kuechly]," coach Ron Rivera said as he recalled a 38-10 loss to the Ravens. "So you need to have a second guy that can run, and Shaq's that guy for us."

The comparisons to Davis began the moment the Panthers selected Thompson with the 25th overall pick. He was a hybrid safety being groomed to play outside linebacker, just as Davis was 10 years earlier, because of his potential to excel in coverage, stop the run and rush the quarterback.

But for three years, they were just comparisons. Thompson served as Davis' apprentice while playing the strongside linebacker position. When the Panthers went from three to two linebackers, it was almost always Davis and Luke Kuechly.

Now the comparisons get real. Thompson will be asked not only to perform like Davis in Sunday's opener against Dallas but also to lead like the heart and soul of the Carolina defense.

Thompson believes he's ready.

"It's just my time to shine," he said. "I'm ready to go, ready to show everybody what I've learned, I'm ready to show TD [Davis] what I learned from him. ... Just try to fill his shoes."

Teammates and coaches believe Thompson is up to the task.

"Shaq's ready to go," Kuechly said. "Everybody always asks if he's ready. Yeah, he's ready. He was ready from the day he got here. He was just waiting for his opportunity to get in there. He's done it when he's had his chance."

Defensive coordinator Eric Washington might have summed it up best early in training camp when he told a Charlotte radio station, "I feel like Shaq Thompson is on the verge of being a superstar."

'Blind mouse'

Much like Davis, Thompson took a while to make the transition from college safety to NFL linebacker.

"My first few years, I would say I was like a blind mouse," Thompson said. "I was just going. As I learned this defense by asking questions from TD and Luke, I started picking it up more and understanding the game more and how teams like to attack our defense."

Thompson played only 34.8 percent of the snaps as a rookie, while Davis played 91 percent. That gradually increased to 49.9 percent in 2016 and 64.2 percent last season.

Unlike Davis, what kept Thompson off the field early wasn't his inexperience. Davis was just that good.

But Rivera saw glimpses of what Thompson could be late during the Panthers' 2015 run to the Super Bowl.

"When we asked him to do a few things that were different, especially playing the buffalo position," Rivera said of the hybrid safety-linebacker that can cover a tight end or receiver as well as rush the passer. "That position is made for him."

Thompson has played all three linebacker positions in addition to "buffalo" in Carolina. Rivera believes the rest of the NFL will discover just how complete Thompson is as an all-around linebacker when he takes over for Davis.

He compares Thompson's football IQ to that of Kuechly, considered one of the most cerebral defenders in the league.

"He understands and sees the entire game," Rivera said of Thompson. "That's what helps him play so fast."

It shouldn't come as a big surprise that Thompson has the locker next to Kuechly's.

"I'm next to a great teacher," Thompson said. "[We] go over plays, scenarios, situations, formations teams like to run around the same play. I sit back and listen and then physically go out and do it."

Munnerlyn can't wait for everyone else to see in Thompson what he sees on a daily basis.

"He anticipates things," he said. "Everybody wonder[s] how Luke is so good. It's his preparation, how much films he watches. He's got Shaq under his wing with that, and Shaq is starting to play a whole lot faster than anybody."

Year of No. 54

Thompson joked that he saw his No. 54 everywhere he looked, from billboards to license plates, on the trip from Charlotte to training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

"My whole mindset is this is the year of 54," he said.

But Thompson doesn't hesitate to credit No. 58, Davis, for everything he has become as a player and father.

"I learned a lot from him," he said. "I learned professionalism. I learned leadership. I learned how to carry yourself on and off the field, the father role. Just looking at him, looking at his life, looking at how he carries himself.

"Even if you don't ever talk to the guy, you can learn a lot, how he carries himself, how he's a dad first and a leader second. That's what I'm trying to follow."

Davis was there for Thompson in May 2016 when Thompson was cited for driving left of the center line during an early-morning, head-on collision with former Duke quarterback Anthony Boone.

Thompson told state troopers that he was reaching for his cell phone, which he had dropped on the floorboard, and that caused him to cross the center line. Alcohol reportedly was involved but did not contribute to the wreck. Thompson passed a field sobriety test.

Thompson said Davis and Kuechly were there for him like "brothers, family."

"Things hit you in life that you need to wake up," he said. "It hit me in life, and I needed to wake up."

Like Wilber Marshall

Thompson showed his athletic ability during a Tuesday practice in Spartanburg when he snagged a Cam Newton pass with one hand in the end zone and took off running the other way. Rivera called it the best play he'd seen in practice since former Chicago teammate Wilber Marshall picked off a pass from Jim McMahon during the Bears' 1985 run to the Super Bowl.

Thompson downplayed the moment at the time and doesn't want to talk about it now.

"It's old news," he said.

Thompson is focused on the future. He knows there will be a lot of eyes on him while Davis is gone, and he doesn't want to disappoint. The Cowboys definitely will have to account for Thompson in coverage and on blitzes.

Thompson's 12 tackles during the preseason led Carolina starters. He also had an interception in the preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills.

Davis agreed with Kuechly that Thompson is ready. His advice to his replacement before beginning his suspension was simple.

"Just go out there and ball," Thompson shared. "I mean, it's not like I never played. Now I am in his shoes. So just go out there and do what I can."