NEW PALESTINE — Before the football season begin, New Palestine sophomore Luke Canfield had few lofty expectations. Standing at 5-foot-9 and weighing 151 pounds, the diminutive, yet shifty, running back carried only one grounded goal.

“Honestly, I just wanted to see the field,” Canfield remarked on his preseason ambition. “Being a sophomore, I didn’t expect to start.”

Opportunity would say different.

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Buried on the depth chart prior to New Palestine’s season opener at Whiteland on Aug. 18, Canfield was the odd man out, looking up at senior Josh Glover and juniors Luke Ely and C.J. Faubion.

His projected role was for 2017 was going to mirror his freshman varsity campaign, more or less, a few late carries in blowouts and maybe some garbage time in the defensive backfield.

Then, Glover was ruled out for Week 1. Ely and Faubion were both tasked to be staples on the defense at linebacker with the former also handling special teams duties, while temperatures for kickoff were going to be grueling.

The Dragons coaching staff had a decision to make, and it’s resulted in a career year for Canfield, who has blazed past the competition for 1,450 yards on 199 carries and 27 rushing touchdowns.

“Ultimately, we made the decision to go with Canfield. We felt his body size, his quickness, his vision, the ability to slip in and out of his cuts was better for us against Whiteland,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said. “We haven’t looked back since. He’s proven to be incredibly physical when he does run for being such a small guy.”

At 130 pounds lighter than his largest lineman and on average four inches shorter than all five, Canfield is a hidden gem, literally, in the backfield.

Last year, DuRon Ford led the rushing attack at 5-9, 175 pounds for the 9-1 Dragons. In 2015, Nick Brickens was a bit heftier at 5-9, 190 pounds, muscling the program to a state runner-up finish, and James Young was prolific at 6-1, 205 pounds during the Dragons 2014 Class 4A state title run.

Canfield, however, isn’t trying to be anyone else but himself, and it’s helped the top-ranked Class 5A go 9-0 to finish the regular season for a fifth straight season.

“They put me in the spot because of my running style and I ended up gaining the spot through that. I just kept going from there,” Canfield said. “It was an opportunity for me and I took it. I didn’t know how it would go. It’s really been a blessing to see how it has progressed over the season.”

Since rushing for 104 yards and a touchdown against Whiteland, Canfield’s production has trended up.

In Week 2 against Richmond during the Dragons’ home opener, Canfield broke out with 275 yards on 20 carries, averaging 13.8 yards per attempt and scoring four touchdowns. Through nine games, he’s eclipsed 100 yards seven times and surpassed 200 yards three times.

His season-best game unfolded against Pendleton Heights as Canfield netted 305 yards on 34 carries and another four touchdowns. His performance was the second 300-yard game in New Palestine history. The only other rusher to amass more yardage was Chris Grider with 336 yards in 2002.

“I just want to run 100 mph, run down hill, find the gap and go,” Canfield said. “Even if there is nothing there, you have to just go out and pound it and get 2 or 3 yards or whatever works.”

Canfield honed his skills through the New Palestine Cadet Football League before reaching high school and started playing football as a kindergartner when he attended a youth camp.

His speed, he says, comes from his father, Richard, who ran track at Warren Central, while his agility is a product of his mom, Sharon, a former gymnast.

As for his patience and field vision, it’s a byproduct of his demeanor, the laid back underclassman admits, while also crediting his offensive line and the team’s balance with quarterback Zach Neligh.

Neligh and Canfield have combined for 11 100-yard games this season with the former rushing for 980 yards and 10 touchdowns while throwing for 1,677 yards and 19 scores.

“Both of us are first-year starters, so it’s kind of nice to make our mark and show people what we can do and what our offense is capable of,” Canfield said.

Behind the tandem, the Dragons are averaging 317.3 yards rushing per game and the offense is sixth best in the state at 49.67 points, regardless of classification.

“I’m proud of what our offense has done, but there is always room for improvement. You just have to improve every week and be 1-0,” Canfield said. “That’s the goal.

“I’m a small kid, but whatever works.”

His stature hasn’t prevented him from being effective, especially around the end zone. This season, he’s posted six games with three or more rushing touchdowns, four with four and hit a season-high with five against Shelbyville on Sept. 29.

“That’s the great part about the sport of football, why I like it so much, and why I think our kids like it so much. Size doesn’t have a lot to do with it depending on the position you play,” Ralph said. “Other sports are different. In basketball, 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds is not very helpful out there. Football is something where your coachability, mental toughness, physical strength, quickness and understanding of the scheme is going to be able to outweigh what your body size is, if you have that talent there.”

Canfield carries all of the tools necessary to excel with touchdown runs of 35, 45, 65 and his longest at 75 yards against Richmond. Yet, the best part of his success, is what he adds to the team.

As the starting running back, the Dragons are stronger on defense with Glover, Faubion and Ely locked in 100 percent for the Red Rage, which is limiting their opponents to 10.44 points a game.

“In the end that’s what it comes down to, what you’re talent level is, and he has a lot of talent,” Ralph said. “It’s been great to see our team rally around that. There’s been no jealously. It’s been great to see how that concept of team has lifted one of our guys up to this status now as a young kid.”

By the numbers

27: In his first year as a starting running back, Luke Canfield has rushed for 27 touchdowns through nine games.

7: New Palestine sophomore Luke Canfield has seven 100-yard rushing games and has surpassed 200 or more yards in three games.

34: Luke Canfield’s single-game high for carries was 34 against Pendleton Heights on Sept. 15.

4: The top-ranked Class 5A Dragons leading rusher has four games with four rushing touchdowns this season.

5: Luke Canfield posted five rushing touchdowns against Shelbyville on Sept. 29 while only rushing for 72 yards on 17 carries. His longest run was 17 yards in the game.

75: Luke Canfield’s longest touchdown run this season measured 75 yards.

305: Luke Canfield ran for 305 yards against Pendleton Heights this season to become only the second player in program history to reach 300. Chris Grider had 336 yards against Tipton in 2002.

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.