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 on 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."

After getting 39 1/2 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, because 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 _ people will question his recovery.

"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.

Nicknamed "Lights Out" in high school for his punishing hits, Merriman has a tattoo of a switch on his right forearm that he pretends to flip while doing his spasmodic sack dance.

Merriman's return already was a big deal, then he got arrested early Sunday morning and 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 afternoon that Merriman won't be charged.

The 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.

There's been speculation the Chargers will 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."

Asked during training camp about Merriman's many interests, Smith said: "I don't discuss any personal business with any of our players and all the different personalities we have."

Interestingly enough, the Chargers' media guide mentions that in the offseason, Merriman likes to lift weights at Muscle Beach and go for runs on Mulholland Drive above Los Angeles. There's a photo of him with former Titans running back Eddie George on the set of Fox Sports' Pro Football Review. The team's press release this week mentions that Merriman and fellow linebackers Phillips and Stephen Cooper share a town house in Hollywood in the offseason.

With his possible eventual replacement _ rookie Larry English _ occupying the locker next to him, Merriman said he's committed to his day job.

"I know my No. 1 priority and that's these guys in this locker room, that's going out and winning ballgames, and everything else is going to take care of itself," Merriman said.

"And I realize that if anybody feels it's going to be distracting for me, I apologize, but there's certain things I like to do. This is what I love to do. I love to play football, I love the challenge, I love the competition of what I do every single day. I don't just show up on Sundays. You can ask anybody around. I get it every day. Every single day, relentlessly."