During the summer, many around the Center Grove football program were buzzing about an incoming freshman running back.

Trojans coach Eric Moore wasn’t quite ready to believe the hype that followed Carson Steele into the preseason after dominating at Center Grove Middle School Central and in the Trojans’ youth programs.

He’s a believer now.

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Listed on the second string of the depth chart heading into the season opener, Steele has been second to none during the first three weeks of the season. His emergence is a big reason why the Trojans, who graduated 19 starters from last year’s state runner-up team, are again among the top teams in Class 6A.

Neither Moore or Steele saw it coming this quickly.

“We were pretty much planning on him being a JV-type kid and playing on Saturday, there on Friday nights for us if we needed him,” Moore said. “And then he started showing spurts in the two scrimmages, so it became less of a Saturday morning thing to, ‘Hey, we’ve probably got to get him into the game somewhere on Friday,’ to the point where we were struggling a little bit — bam, here you go, and he ended up being the answer.”

When Center Grove fell into an early hole in the season opener at Warren Central, Moore decided to see what the 5-foot-11, 198-pound newcomer could do. Steele promptly broke loose for a 93-yard run during the second half of the part of a 132-yard debut.

“Just to come out first week with one of the best schools in the nation, Warren, at their house, it was so nerve-wracking,” Steele said.

After following up with 157 yards and four touchdowns on just 14 carries against Whiteland, Steele picked it up yet another notch last week against defending Class 6A state champ Carmel.

Having already racked up 64 yards before halftime, Steele all but buried the Greyhounds with a 95-yard scoring burst at the end of the third quarter. He finished the night with 238 yards rushing and three scores on 27 attempts, adding two pass receptions — the first of his high school career — for 19 more yards.

His totals of 527 yards rushing and nine touchdowns both lead the county by a significant margin and put him among the statewide leaders.

“He’s checked all the boxes on what you would do with a kid as you try to play him,” Moore said. “Can you mentally know what you’re doing, know your assignment? Yeah, pretty good grades on that; not excellent. But physically, it’s an A-plus, and the potential to make big plays, A-plus.”

Though the expectations coming into camp this summer were tempered somewhat, Moore clearly saw some potential in Steele — enough so that he made the decision to give him the No. 30 jersey that had belonged to Trojan legend Titus McCoy.

The 14-year-old said he felt a little bit of pressure once the coach had him wear McCoy’s number.

“It was a big role to fill,” Steele said. “You want to be him, and then in a couple of years you start playing with his number.”

Moore says that Steele has been turning heads since he first started playing youth football, but notes that the optimism has always been guarded as the star moved up from one level to the next.

When Steele dominated Bantam football, some questioned whether he’d do the same at the Junior Trojan level. When he did, some doubted it would translate to the middle school level. It did. (Just ask Center Grove Middle School North, which absorbed a 28-0 defeat against Central last year thanks to four TD runs by Steele.)

“So they’re like, ‘Well, high school’s going to be a different story,’” Moore said. “Well, I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, either, but I’ve got an IV of it now. I’m totally on board.”

Though Steele says the varsity game is “definitely a lot faster” than anything he’d experienced previously, he’s clearly adjusted well. Moore is particularly impressed by how many yards Steele picks up after contact, noting that the freshman always seems to grind out another few yards even once he’s been wrapped up.

Steele has kept quiet despite his breakout start, and he has stayed in his lane within the program — he still changes in the freshman locker room, and he’s on the sideline for each of the Trojans’ freshman games, supporting his classmates.

The upperclassmen on the offensive line, Moore adds, are appreciative of Steele’s hard-nosed running style.

“My line likes him,” the coach said. “You can tell the kids like blocking for him because they know he’s running his butt off.”

By the numbers

Freshman running back Carson Steele has wasted little time making an impact at Center Grove. A look at his rushing numbers for the first three games:

Opponent;Rush;Yds;TD

Warren Central;17;132;2

Whiteland;14;157;4

Carmel;27;238;3

Totals;58;527;9

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.