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SANTA CLARA ? Outside linebacker Manny Lawson was turning into a difference-maker on the 49ers defense early last season after an up-and-down rookie year.

And, then, it was over.

Lawson never missed time due to an injury at any point in his football career prior to sustaining a torn knee ligament in a mid-September practice. He underwent season-ending surgery, and his second NFL season ended after just two games.

?I have no doubt in my ability not only to start off where I was last year but to exceed it,? Lawson said.

Lawson has not missed a practice during the first nine days of training camp, and he says there is nothing that his surgically repaired left knee will not allow him to do.

?It feels good to be back after a year off,? Lawson said. ?I?m not cautious about anything. I have no worries, no scares, no doubts, no (thoughts) that I might hurt myself.?

The 49ers chose Lawson with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2006 draft, and envisioned him as an answer to their problems getting pressure on the quarterback. As a defensive end at North Carolina State, Lawson recorded 10.5 sacks his senior season.

But Lawson (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) did not appear to have the kind of strength required to work against offensive tackles in the NFL. However, Lawson still proved to be valuable in other areas. Namely, his coverage skills against tight ends were better developed than the 49ers could have imagined.

Lawson was also turning into an active run-stopper when he went down with the injury. He recorded 14 tackles and one pass broken up in two games prior to sustaining a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in practice.

In his first 18 NFL games, Lawson has just two sacks. Although he is not being counted upon to apply constant heat on opposing quarterbacks, coach Mike Nolan said Lawson will be turned loose on occasion.

?He will have to rush at times,? Nolan said. ?I am pleased with what we have going on with the rush. The group has done a better job.?

Training camp could not get here soon enough for Lawson, who dreaded the monotony of rehabilitating his knee injury. He was medically cleared to participate during the team?s organized team activities in June, but the 49ers decided to take the cautious approach. He did not get onto the practice field with his teammates until the first day of camp.

?I think I?m the only player who was looking forward to coming to training camp,? Lawson said. ?Really, being here is really empowering. It?s the final step in rehab.?

When Lawson left the lineup, the 49ers had a 2-0 record, heading into a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His absence left a gaping hole in the 49ers? defense. Now, both outside linebacker positions appear to be vastly improved from a year ago ? with the return of Lawson and the free-agent signing of Justin Smith.

?What gets me excited isn?t so much what I think this defense can do, it?s talking to a guy like Justin Smith about the defense and what he thinks about it,? Lawson said. ?He said he?s never been around such positive guys and playmakers. And then I talk to Shawntae Spencer about how fast our defense is. When you look to the ball you see at least six players on our defense at the ball.

?That?s when I get excited ? when I see and hear other guys have the same ideas and concepts about our defense that I do.?

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at 49ers.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Matt Maiocco at 521-5492 or matt.maiocco@pressdemocrat.com.