The first day of practice for the Olentangy Liberty High School football team might have required name tags with so many new faces on the roster.
The Patriots lost their leading rushers in Allen Eggleston and Clay Lust and a host of receivers, including OCC-Cardinal Division Co-Player of the Year Cameron Whitner, who led the team in all-purpose yards (1,245 yards) and scoring (60 points).
Also gone are defensive end Michael Hilty, a Cincinnati recruit, and linebacker Victor Kaczkowski (Dayton).
With only 10 returning starters, coach Steve Hale and his staff have far more questions than answers heading into the opener against Dublin Coffman in the Kirk Herbstreit Varsity Football Series at noon Sunday in Ohio Stadium.
But Hale, who is entering his seventh season, has never been one to hit the panic button.
"We have a whole host of guys, and it's a long list," he said. "It's going to be really competitive because we've got a lot of guys competing for a lot of positions and those guys who want it most are going to be put in those positions."
Hale has a proven system which seems to find the right guy for the right position.
It has produced five consecutive playoff appearances and four league championships, including last season when the Patriots finished 5-2 in the Cardinal Division to tie Dublin Jerome and Westerville South for first ahead of Marysville (4-3), Olentangy (4-3), Dublin Scioto (4-3), Westerville North (1-6) and Westerville Central (0-7).
Liberty finished 8-4 overall following a 35-0 loss to Medina Highland in a Division II regional semifinal. It stunned top-seeded Toledo Central Catholic 34-7 in a first-round game.
Along with success comes an expectation, and the challenge will be even greater this year as Liberty moves to Division I.
"Anything less is a disappointment for us," senior quarterback Zach Michael said. "With us moving up to Division I, I think we only have the opportunity to prove ourselves even more."
Michael (6-foot-1, 180 pounds), who was second-team all-league, completed 126 of 233 passes for 1,485 yards with 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Hale has noted his confidence and his guidance in the preseason.
"Obviously, when you have the quarterback back, that's nice," Hale said. "That's a good place to start when you start building things offensively. We did lose a lot of skill players, but we do have Zach's leadership coming back and that will help."
Three returning starters will be protecting Michael in senior linemen Andrew Budendorf (6-2, 200), Mark Larsen (6-5, 255) and Brendon Bland (6-0, 290).
Those competing for time in the backfield include senior Jo'el Murphy and juniors Jimmy Chickerella and Jeff Kemper.
Junior Josh Meyers is a returning starter at wide receiver, where seniors Will Cheesman (6-5, 190), Kyle Pettay and Chris Hawkins and sophomore Marcus Davis also will fit into the offense.
"We're young at spots so we've worked on keeping it simple and we've worked a lot on ball security," Hale said. "We can't afford to have big turnovers and we have to play smart."
The Patriots have never been a big team up front so they have been successful with a 3-5-3 defense.
Senior Shea Baker is back at middle linebacker along with senior A.J. Dobson on the line. Senior Jake McGary started every game last year at strong safety.
Others expected to contribute in the secondary include Chickerella and seniors Tyler Specht, Koh Schooley and Tyler Black, who was sidelined with an injury last season.
Junior Matt Casey is likely to start at linebacker.
"We rely on our speed a lot, so having a 3-5 defense allows us to spread an offense out and use the speed to our advantage," Baker said. "We've just got to do what we've done in past years and that's play hard and be prepared."