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Jadeveon Clowney is finally ready to make his Panthers debut

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CHARLOTTE — Jadeveon Clowney always dreamed of something like this. 

But there were also points in his NFL career at which he actively avoided it because he wanted to make sure he was ready. 

He is now.

Growing up in Rock Hill S.C., and being compared to Julius Peppers was one thing. But actually walking the same halls as the Hall of Famer, playing for his hometown team the way Peppers did, was something he wasn't sure he was ready for.

"I used to just watch them on TV all the time and say I can't wait till I get my opportunity to do that one day," Clowney said Friday as he arrived at Bank of America Stadium to sign his new two-year contract."Years ago, when I hit free agency, I told my agent not to reach out to Carolina because I wanted to mature more. And to get to this point where I know if I have to go back there, I can handle myself, and it won't be a problem for me to do my job because I was still learning how to be a pro.

"So now I'm 31. I said I'm at the age now where I'm cool going back home; I can handle myself."

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He's proven he can handle business on the field as well, posting a career-high 9.5 sacks last season. A three-time Pro Bowler, he's coming here to bring his unique abilities on the edge, as well as a sense of stability for this defense.

And being able to do it at home, especially now that he's prepared for it, makes it more special for Clowney. 

A self-described homebody, he joked that he spends all his time "hanging with the kids," so the pressure of being a former No. 1 overall pick has receded. 

But make no mistake, he draws a lot of attention, and his phone won't stop ringing. As he walked in Friday, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti called, and he hasn't been the only one. Clowney's phone has been buzzing non-stop with well-wishes from friends, family members, and neighbors who saw him play at South Pointe High and the University of South Carolina.

"It's going crazy right now back in Rock Hill," he said with a grin. "All these Carolina fans down the road, and I grew up like 30 minutes from here, so it's going to be crazy.

"It's exciting. I've been looking forward to growing up watching this team all my career and all my life. Once you get to the NFL, you wonder how they run things, how they do things up there, and for me to just be in this building now on the team. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to go ahead and showcase myself and also meet new guys and build new relationships throughout this team and see how far we can go."

While perhaps not the same as when he was younger, there is a certain expectation that comes with his arrival. The Panthers need him to lead a new defense and put pressure on quarterbacks, and help solidify a group that has turned over a significant majority of its personnel.

And as he arrives, it's not lost on him that the player he modeled himself after created a particular legacy here as well.

Clowney was a running back in his early years in Rock Hill, but seeing Julius Peppers join the Panthers as the second overall pick in the 2002 draft showed him that people of their size and athleticism could flourish on defense.

He's met Peppers a few times over the years, including at a pass rusher summit Peppers led in South Florida and hopes to be able to hold up the standard of his role model now that he's in the same locker room.

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"Pep was the man," Clowney said. "I was the biggest fan of Julius Peppers growing up so I wanted to play defensive end and everything. I was a running back, but watching him, it's like, hey, he's a dog. It was great (being compared to him). It was fun because, you know, it was someone I looked up to with somebody I had a lot of respect for, and somebody that I thought was like great at the game. So, for people to compare me to him, that was really crazy to me.

"I was just like, man, he had been out there doing it. I've got to prove myself, and I was just hoping I can do that and make everybody happy. He was proving it at the time, and I was just a big fan of his. And for me to hear people say you play like him. That's crazy."

Now, he gets a chance to walk into the same locker room every day and play in front of a hometown crowd.

It's something Jadeveon Clowney has dreamed about for years.

Now, he's finally ready to make it happen.

View photos of Jadeveon Clowney as he toured Bank of America Stadium meeting coaches, teammates and taking in his new home.