Quan Bray wears his heart under his sleeve.

The Auburn receiver's upper right arm is covered with a tattoo of his mother's face above the message "R.I.P. Tonya."

"I always wake up in the morning and that's the first thing I see," Bray said.

His father, Jeffery Jones, shot and killed Tonya Bray on July 3, 2011, and is serving a life sentence.

It was a devastating blow to Bray and his family just as the highly touted recruit was set to begin his career at Auburn.

But the often-smiling Bray has overcome that tragedy and is hoping to finally have a breakout season for the Tigers, who must replace leading receiver Emory Blake.

Bray had seldom spoke about his mother's killing publicly before politely fielding questions for a few minutes on the matter Thursday on the eve of camp's opening practice.

LaGrange, Ga., police say Tonya Bray was found dead in her car and that Jones turned himself in not long after. He pleaded guilty in June 2012.

Bray's uncle and high school coach, Charles Flowers, said Jones and Tonya Bray were together for a long time but never married and had broken up a couple of years before the shooting.

Flowers said he doubts Bray has visited his father since then and said the two didn't have a good relationship, describing Jones as possessive, mean and "lowdown."

The receiver's sunny disposition — the old Quan — didn't return immediately, and the scars no doubt remain if not as visible as his mother's smiling face to those around him.

"You'll never really forget a devastating situation like that, but I think he's using it as an incentive," said Flowers, a former coach at Troup County High School in LaGrange. "He seems to be back to his cordial, jolly, get after it, always enthusiastic, always smiling self. He's getting back to his old self."

Bray, whose 11-year-old brother Jymere lives with their grandmother in Georgia, said football and teammates helped him cope during that time.

Fellow receiver Trovon Reed's mother had passed away a few months earlier, so he has someone handy who understands the loss.

"When we're in a grind and we don't want to do this, he's just like, 'Look up, man. Just look up. We've got something to do this for,'" Bray said.

Football and working out were an escape from the pain back then. Now, he's motivated to do well for Jymere and his mother, who was a constant presence at his basketball and football games.

"When my mom passed, it was really tragic, but God always does things for a reason," Bray said. "For that to happen to me, it was a blessing in a way. It got my mind right. I had to grow up faster than I expected to."

Teammate Nosa Eguae said he's impressed by Bray's demeanor and work ethic, and his frequent presence in the gym this summer.

"From what he's been through, I couldn't even fathom," the defensive end said. "To see him every single day, come out with a smile on his face ... Every time I see him, I say, 'What's good? How you doing?' He's always positive, he's always full of laughter and he's always working.

"Every time I'm here working this summer, I've seen Quan Bray here working. That's just a testament to him. That's a testament to his family. I know he's been through a lot but he doesn't let it get him down. He's always positive. He's always trying to make sure he's doing the best not just for him but for his family and this football team."

That's why Bray's arrest on the campus of West Georgia last September during a traffic stop was so hard. He was charged for playing his music too loud and possession of alcohol by a minor, though police said he hadn't been drinking.

Bray said he grew from that experience, too.

"It was a good thing for me," he said. "It sounds crazy but it really was. It actually got my mind right to where like, you've got something that a lot of people don't have. So you have to man up and make the right decisions and do the right things. It was just a minor setback for a major comeback coming into this year. It was just a little setback."

Perhaps an important one, though.

Bray struggled last season when Auburn fell to 3-9 and Bray struggled to fit into the pro-style offense. His former offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, returned as head coach after one year at Arkansas State and brought with him the spread-style system that fits Bray's abilities.

Flowers said he and Bray had talked before the arrest "about his work ethic and him being nonchalant in that respect."

"I did see a change after that, because he was embarrassed," Flowers said. "He was embarrassed and he felt like he had let his little brother down and also he felt like he knew that his mother wouldn't be proud of him."

And that's one thing Bray can't stomach.