CLEMSON -- There are plays when coaches get a peek at the Antonio Clay of yesteryear, where the Clemson linebacker splits a center and guard and wraps up the tailback with breakneck abandon.
Those snapshots have not been as frequent as desired, marred by subsequent times when Clay's passion and conditioning have been called into question.
Clay went home for the spring semester to cope with depression related to his sister's death, and when he rejoined the Tigers for August camp, his additional weight and softer physique were noted as concerns.
Two weeks into fall camp, it appears Clay's football rehabilitation has progressed -- but far from the point Clemson fans should expect his same performance.
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Clay (6-foot, 230 pounds), who shed eight pounds in the first two practices, remains behind sophomore Cortney Vincent at middle linebacker, and the gap has not narrowed.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said linebackers coach David Blackwell has treated the situation with delicacy.
But by the same token, Clay earned his playing time last season because of season-ending injuries to Tramaine Billie and Anthony Waters.
This year, Clay is having trouble adjusting how to respond to being the hunted in a position battle instead of the hunter.
"There's got to be a lot of love, but there has to be a lot of tugging and pushing," Koenning said. "Antonio is a guy that had -- I don't want to say things had been handed to him -- but injuries put him in a situation where he got his opportunities. He really didn't have to just go and beat somebody out.
"Cortney is not just going away. He is playing better than I ever thought he would. He has a player's confidence to him and is playing at game speed every day in practice."
N SIX PACK: As expected, six players returned from injury Monday: defensive ends Ricky Sapp (ankle) and Jamie Cumbie (shoulder surgery), tackles Dorell Scott (ankle) and Antwon Murchison (concussion), linebacker Josh Miller (oral surgery) and right tackle Landon Walker (knee surgery).
Extra points: Freshman David Smith is challenging Walker to be the No. 5 swing tackle, coach Tommy Bowden said, noting Smith owns as much practice experience as Walker, a January enrollee, because of the injury. ... Junior receiver Rendrick Taylor continues to collect a few snaps from the tailback spot, although considering Taylor a threat to be a ball-carrier would be a stretch, Bowden said. ... Bowden also praised freshman fullback/tight end Chad Diehl, calling him perhaps the position's strongest blocker. Diehl is expected to see time on special teams and in goal-line situations, but Bowden can use him as a motivator.
"He's probably going to get some work over other guys who have been out there," Bowden said. "I'm not going to say names; those guys know who they are."
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