BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger knew days before LSU's 12-10 win over Auburn last week that getting Spencer Ware back from injury in the LSU backfield would help, if for no other reason than this:
"Not knocking anybody," he said, "but Spencer Ware is probably our best back at pass protect."
As the game unfolded, he proved pretty good at other areas, too. His 33-yard catch-and-run from Mettenberger in the Tigers' last possession helped LSU seal the win. And his team-high 90 rushing yards on 16 carries proved he's still a tough, powerful runner. In total, he had 134 yards of offense against Auburn, a game that served as a reminder why he was the unquestioned top back for the first seven games of the 2011 season.
Slimmer and reinvigorated after a 10-game stretch of being marginalized in the increasingly crowded LSU backfield, Ware looked like his old self against Auburn.
"Spencer is a tremendously competitive guy," LSU coach Les Miles said Monday. "I think he has dropped 10, maybe 12 pounds in the offseason and he's maybe faster than he's been. He's a physical back and he has great ball skills.
"This is where Spencer needs to play. At this weight, this intent, it's just how it's played. If he does that, he'll have a number of productive efforts."
He's had plenty in his past, though most of them seem so long ago.
In The Tigers' first seven games of 2011, Ware was the starter and had a team-high 512 yards, breaking the 100-yard mark against Mississippi State and Florida and coming within a yard of 100 against Oregon. His numbers might have been even better if he weren't limited to a combined 10 carries in blowouts over Northwestern State and Kentucky as the coaching staff gave some carries to other backs.
In his other five starts, he reached the 20-carry mark, something no LSU back has done since. His stretch as the "man" in LSU's running game ended when he was suspended along with defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon for the 2011 Auburn game for breaking team rules.
He never regained his spot as the "man" in the LSU running game, gaining just 195 yards in five games, with no starts, after the suspension. He only had one strong game, a 10-carry, 70-yard effort against Ole Miss. He finished second on the team to Michael Ford with 707 rushing yards on 177 carries as LSU's backfield moved to what has now become a familiar, and successful, "by-committee" approach.
This season, he continued to struggle to regain form. He missed the North Texas game because of injury. He returned and ran well against Washington, gaining 38 yards on eight carries, but he suffered a turf toe injury that kept him out of the Idaho game.
He finally broke out against, of all teams, Auburn, the game he missed last season for the suspension that sent him into a spiral.
His return was welcomed by those who remember how solid he can be.
"Spencer Ware, he's our spark plug," offensive tackle Josh Dworaczyk said after the Auburn game. "He's the type of guy, last week [against Idaho], he was a vocal leader. He wasn't getting carries, but he came into the locker room at halftime and his presence, the way he spoke to everybody, got us jump-started. Tonight, to see him break away on those big runs and the catch-and-run, it really got us jump-started."
Kenny Hilliard, who had a breakout game getting carries in Ware's place last year against Auburn, got his first career start in this year's AU game in place of the injured Alfred Blue. But Ware stole the show.
"I was just keeping it going," Ware said. "It's my responsibility to bring everything that is needed to our offense and to the locker room."
In this season's LSU backfield, a story like Ware's -- a new back emerging to lead LSU's rushing attack -- seems to happen every week. First it was Hilliard, who had two long runs in the opener against North Texas. Then it was Blue, who started with back-to-back 100-yard games before getting hurt, then it was back to Hilliard for having another big game against Idaho.
Ware is different in one way: He can recall a time when he was the go-to guy for a sustained stretch.
Could he move to get that role back? With his running, blocking and pass-catching against Auburn, he looked like a candidate. He thinks he can keep doing it, while also acknowledging that he's not the only one.
"That's what we do," he said. "Big-time players, making big-time plays in big-time situations.
"That's what we all do, no exceptions."