- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

SAN DIEGO | The lights are coming back on for the star outside linebacker known as “Lights Out.”

Shawne Merriman returns to the San Diego Chargers’ starting lineup, fittingly, in prime time Monday night at Oakland.

One of the hardest-hitting players in the NFL, Merriman will be playing in a real game for the first time in just more than a year. His frame of mind?

“To let loose,” he said. “I can’t wait. I don’t even think people even understand how excited I am right now about this upcoming season.”

The former Maryland standout’s return already was a big deal, then he got arrested early Sunday morning and was accused by reality TV star Tila Tequila of choking and throwing her to the ground while she was trying to leave his home in suburban Poway.

The District Attorney’s Office announced Friday that Merriman won’t be charged.

After getting 39.5 sacks his first three seasons, Merriman missed the final 15 games last year - and San Diego’s two playoff games - after having surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his left knee. The Chargers are eager to have him back. Their once-feared defense lost a good deal of its spark when “Lights Out” went out last September.

Merriman - who sports a mohawk often colored blue - wants to once again leave his mark on opposing quarterbacks and running backs.

“I feel like I’ve been challenged. I feel like I’ve been questioned, and the best way to get those questions and things out of the way is to go out and perform,” Merriman said.

Merriman isn’t at 100 percent, although he said he’s getting closer and got through the exhibition season OK. He knows that if he misses a tackle - and he doesn’t expect to do that often - there will be questions about his health.

“You’ve got to be willing to deal with everything that comes,” Merriman said. “I know where I should be at. I know how I want to progress, and right where I am right now is what I expected to be coming into the season.”

His teammates love Merriman’s presence on the field.

“He’s a game-changer,” strong safety Clinton Hart said. “Just having him on the field, people understand that hey, they’ve got to protect their quarterback a little bit more and a little bit longer. That gives other guys a chance to do well.

“He brings size, power, speed and intimidation. With those things, he’s a big plus to our defense,” Hart said.

San Diego’s other outside linebacker, Shaun Phillips, said the Chargers missed Merriman’s leadership, work ethic and tenacity.

“He’s like our spark plug because we expect him to make a big play at certain times, so he’ll make the big play, which will pump us all up, which in turn will make us all get out there and play better,” Phillips said.

Merriman’s arrest brought some unwanted attention in the week before the opener. General manager A.J. Smith reportedly isn’t thrilled with Merriman’s extracurricular activities. And the Chargers could let him leave for big money elsewhere when he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.

Merriman, suspended four games for testing positive for steroids in 2006, has various business ventures and is enamored with the Hollywood social scene. While on injured reserve last year, he flew back and forth to Los Angeles once a week to appear on a football preview show. Merriman said Smith once mentioned that the player’s outside interests were “a concern.”

Merriman took it all in stride.

“I know my No. 1 priority, and that’s these guys in this locker room, that’s going out and winning ballgames,” he said. “Everything else is going to take care of itself.”

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