CLEMSON -- Trying to detect how close Antonio Clay has come to returning to his past self requires two sub-categories.
A physical difference is visible in the Clemson junior linebacker's distended, and perhaps less-defined, arms and already thick trunk.
The mental aspect is more difficult to discern, as those close to Clay confess he still endures ups and downs related to the tragic death of his sister, Yoshanda Sanders, last August.
The vacant stares and sullen expressions displayed on Clay's face during Saturday's opening fall practice have also always been a part of his nature.
True to his form, he spoke softly and succinctly afterward about the depression that resulted from Sanders' death, his life during five months of home rehabilitation, and his transition back to being a football player.
"I missed the team more as each day went by," Clay said.
"I see football the same way. I still think I'm capable of making the same plays I made a year ago. I'm just going to take it as far as I can."
Coaches and several teammates are not sure Clay will ever be exactly the same psychologically -- nor should he be expected to.
But there have been enough positive signs of rehabilitative progress -- light-hearted banter with teammates, the sporadic flashing of his wide smile -- that the outlook for his eventual recovery seems favorable.
When Sanders, 22, his closest confidant, died in a car accident four days before Clemson's 2007 opener, Clay took scant time to grieve.
He played in the game, went home to bury his sister and within a few hours was back on the practice field.
The stored emotions caught up with him during a visit home during the November bye week, when he spent extended time with his mother and his two nieces, both of whom survived the one-car crash.
"That's something that happens when you make the decision to just go through and do something you love," Clay said. "What happened, it happened for a reason, and I just tried to deal with it the best way I could."
Clay (6-foot-2) grew noticeably more introspective and his weight plummeted to just above 200 pounds, roughly 25-30 below his playing weight.
His role in the Music City Bowl was therefore limited, and afterward Clemson coaches and Clay's uncle, James Grant, agreed the best course for rehabilitation would be to have Clay leave school for the spring semester.
Clay could do so without hurting his playing eligibility by either filing a medical absence waiver with the NCAA or via a missed term clause within university guidelines.
A doctor put Clay on antidepressants and, by design, he went months without lifting a weight.
He returned to Clemson in late May to attend the three sets of summer school and was slowly re-indoctrinated into strength training.
That is why linebackers coach David Blackwell said false alarms will invariably sound at the sight of Clay, who said he weighs 238 -- 18 pounds more than his 2007 listed weight.
Blackwell said Clay was arguably a tad too light for the middle linebacker position last season while hovering between 225 and 230.
Clay has begun fall camp as the second-stringer behind junior Cortney Vincent, although coaches are hoping it is only a matter of time before Clay regains his spot on the depth chart perch.
"Speed is the deal, and as long as he shows his quickness, explosiveness and speed, I don't care if he's 300 pounds," Blackwell said. "If he can carry the weight, it's good weight. Right now, it's not good weight, but it's not a huge concern because we don't play for a month.
"Everybody's making a big deal out of it, but it's 12 pounds. We'll take half of it off of him and he'll be ready to play against Florida State."
n EXTRA POINTS -- Five walk-ons have been put on scholarship: starting punter candidate Jimmy Maners, second-team center Ben Ramsey, tight end Jermaine Martin, defensive tackle Bryan Baker and receiver Chris Wade. ... Because of the length of the first workout (three hours), the Tigers cut back on conditioning to avoid burning players out on the first day, coach Tommy Bowden said.