CHARLOTTE – It's been a long two-plus months for fullback Mike Tolbert, but the wait is finally over.
"Man, I'm so excited," Tolbert said. "When (offensive coordinator Mike) Shula was going over the game plan and he was calling my name and my number, I was like, 'Yes! Thank you, Lord!' I'm so glad to be back. It's going to be fun."
Tolbert suffered a left knee injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. He was placed on injured reserve/designated for return, which automatically sidelined him for eight games, and was activated last week.
Tolbert said he's felt ready to play for several weeks, but the injured reserve designation forced him to wait until Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Tolbert is understandably raring to go.
"It's been tough – knowing that I've been healthy for the last few weeks and not being able to be out there with the guys," Tolbert said. "I'm back now. I'm ready to roll."
And with Tolbert back, the Panthers plan to take advantage of his unique skill set.
"We're definitely a better offense when he's in the mix," center Ryan Kalil said. "He brings a lot to the table. He was definitely missed, and we're excited to have him back."
One of Tolbert's strongest assets is his versatility. Defenses often have a hard time knowing how he's going to be used. He plays what head coach Ron Rivera calls the "F" position, and it may as well stand for flexibility.
"When you have a pure fullback in there, you know the ball is only going to one person," Rivera explained. "With Tolbert in there as kind of a hybrid fullback, you don't know if he's going to get the ball running it, catching it, or if he's going to block.
"With him, you can move him around to different positions. He plays what we call the 'F' position. That 'F' position can be used by a tight end, another wide receiver or another running back. Because of what he does for us, he gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of personnel and formations you can align into. That's a plus."
Tolbert is also valuable in situations where the defense has a better idea of what to expect. In short-yardage and goal-line situations, Tolbert has proven difficult to tackle with a nose for the end zone, boasting 40 total touchdowns.
He was selected to his first career Pro Bowl last year after leading the Panthers with seven total touchdowns and ranking first among all NFL running backs and fullbacks with a 30.7 first down percentage.
He brings a physical edge to the Carolina offense, and he's hoping it will help spark a turnaround.
"You have to have an attitude," Tolbert said. "Hopefully, with me coming back, they'll see the type of attitude that I bring and it'll be infectious throughout the team."