Citrus running back Colton McNeely (3) powers the ball through the Lecanto defense Sept. 10 at Citrus High School in Inverness. McNeely ran for 215 yards during that game and has 436 rushing yards in just three games this fall.

The name Colton McNeely may not have rang any bells outside of Citrus High just a few weeks ago. But safe to assume football coaches around the area know exactly who he is now.

McNeely, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound sophomore running back and middle linebacker for the Hurricanes, has announced himself with authority over his team’s first three games this season.

He has surpassed 100 yards rushing in all of those contests, and his 436 yards on the year is just five yards behind Lecanto’s Luke Malmberg for the county lead despite the fact Citrus has played one less game than every other team in the county.

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“Colton is a workhorse. He’s a special kid,” Citrus head coach McKinley Franklin said. “It’s hard to get him off the football field even when he’s tired. Colton is something special, he really is.”

McNeely ran for a very solid 106 yards on 22 carries in the season opener at Springstead, and last Friday had 115 yards on 15 rushes versus Hernando.

But it was his performance on Sept. 10, in a home game against rival Lecanto that was truly an eye-opener. On 25 carries he totaled 215 yards and ran for two touchdowns. Problem for McNeely and the ’Canes was the Panthers rallied for a 40-24 victory.

“I can improve myself way more. Right now we’ve got to focus as a team,” McNeely said. “I’ve just been grinding my whole life, working out every day. I expected to have a decent season this year, a couple yards here, a couple of yards there.

“… It (the Lecanto game) didn’t make me happy because we lost, but at the same time it did. I’ve seen what I’m capable of and what I can do in the future.”

He was actually on the varsity squad as a freshman, but a foot injury kept him out of several games. As a result he was limited to eight carries for 17 yards and a touchdown on offense, though he did record 42 tackles and a fumble recovery on defense.

Still, the time he did receive in 2020 made him realize it was a much different game from middle school.

“It prepared me to work out harder and train harder in the offseason, so I’d be better than everyone,” McNeely said.

He has certainly played better than most when running the ball, and last week he had his best defensive showing with 17 tackles. Overall he has been quite a bright spot as Citrus, still young and building, has gotten off to a 0-3 start.

“He’s dedicated. He’s a hard worker. On defense he’s a ball hawk. On offense he’s a bulldozer. He dares you to get in his way,” Franklin said. “Colton McNeely is a born leader, just by example. He’s the first to the weight room, he’s the last to leave. He holds his teammates accountable. And he’s a sophomore. He has high expectations for himself and his teammates.”

McNeely said he was told he needed to take on a leadership role and even as an underclassman it’s a duty he takes on willingly.

“I’ve been a leader all my life,” McNeely said.

He’s fast becoming a statistical leader. He believes he can surpass 1,000 yards and 100 tackles. He’d like to become an all-conference and all-state player, earn national recognition and eventually play in college.

“His ceiling is whatever Colton McNeely wants it to be,” Franklin said. “He’s going to get stronger and bigger and faster. If he adds a little more height, he’ll be that much better.”

In the meantime, he’d like to help the ’Canes collect their first win and plenty more after that.

“I think we’re going to beat a team that people don’t think we’re going to beat,” McNeely said, “and turn out to have an average season.”

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Contact Chronicle sports reporter Chris Bernhardt at 352-563-5660, or on twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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