With a background that includes playing for one of the greatest coaches to come through the Central District and being an assistant at the college level, Linden-McKinley coach Eric Valentine has experienced winning at numerous stops over the past 20 years.

What he walked into during his first season running the Panthers, though, would have been difficult for most to overcome.

Andrew Phillips was hired as coach in May 2018, but a change was made one week before the season started.

Valentine, who is a teacher at Linden, was asked to take over a program that hasn't had a winning record since 2001 and that featured a small roster with little returning experience.

Linden went 0-10 and scored just 24 points all season.

"We had all kinds of problems," Valentine said. "There were staff issues that had to get addressed and we tried to build a program and a culture. It was quite the learning experience. It's been a lot more smooth this time around just getting that winter time to develop things the way you want them to develop, getting the staff on and some personal leadership development. When you get everybody together, it goes so much more smoothly."

A 1999 Amanda-Clearcreek graduate who played for Ron Hinton and was on the roster in 1997 when the Aces were a Division V state semifinalist, Valentine spent time assisting at Northridge, Liberty Union and his alma mater and also has served as an assistant at Ohio Dominican and Hocking College.

One of the coaches on his current staff is from Georgia, and another is from Connecticut.

The Panthers' offensive coordinator is Kyle Stoughton, who played for Otterbein.

Valentine sees potential in a team that opens Aug. 30 at Columbus West, which went 1-9 last season.

"We want to continue to build and increase our numbers over the first few weeks of the season to continue to build toward the future," Valentine said. "We're trying to build that positive connection out here. We've got a million things out here like students who are looking for alternatives to strengthen their resumes (and) credits for students to go to Columbus State. There are a lot of good things happening in our building and I'm glad to be a part of it."

OFFENSE

One constant the last few years has been DaViontae Kendrix-Wilson, a senior who started half of his freshman season at quarterback and has been the regular at that position for most of the time since then.

"We're doing pretty well," Kendrix-Wilson said. "As far as understanding what (Valentine) is trying to coach and do, I get it. Some of the younger guys don't always understand, but I tell them you just have to trust what he's saying. Me being here before helps out a lot."

Sophomore Travis Foster is another top returnee who will see time at running back and on the offensive line after making first-team all-City League-North Division last season.

Senior Shawn Blount should be at tight end and also see time at running back, and junior Jeffrey Madison is a returning wide receiver.

On the line, junior Hezekiah Peters and sophomore Josh Price will line up at guard, with sophomore Anthony Claude and junior Gene Sutton at tackle and junior Travon Miller at center.

"We're trying to slow down the process since we don't have as many people as other teams and since we've got so many young people," Kendrix-Wilson said.

DEFENSE

Blount and Madison return at cornerback and Foster is a returnee at linebacker.

Sophomore Rondavion Haynes, who also figures to play a key role at running back, should be a key linebacker.

Kendrix-Wilson should be at safety, while juniors Ja'auane Foxx and L.B. Touns and sophomore Jaland Peterson are among those who should rotate into the secondary.

On the line, Miller will be at nose guard, Claude, Peters and Price will see time at tackle and Sutton will be at end.

Miller was honorable mention all-league last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Junior David Castlin, who also plays for the soccer program, is expected to be the kicker and punter.

Madison is among the players who returned kickoffs and punts last season and should do so again this fall.

THE LINEUP

Offense

Quarterbacks: *DaViontae Kendrix-Wilson (sr., 5-6, 165), Deshawn McGlown (so., 5-8, 130)

Running backs: *Travis Foster (so., 6-0, 230) *Rondavion Haynes (so., 5-9, 179)

Receivers: *Jeffrey Madison (jr., 6-1, 158), Shawn Blount (sr., 5-5, 132), Ja'auane Foxx (jr., 6-0, 134), Boyd Kelly (fr., 6-1, 171), Jaland Peterson (so., 6-3, 170), L.B. Touns (jr., 5-7, 120)

Tight end: *Blount

Linemen: *Anthony Claude (so., 6-3, 260), *Trevon Miller (jr., 5-5, 195), *Hezekiah Peters (jr., 5-8, 191), *Josh Price (so., 5-8, 160), *Gene Sutton (fr., 6-2, 179), Foster

Defense

Linemen: *Claude, *Peters, *Price, *Sutton

Linebackers: *Foster, *Haynes, *Miller

Secondary: *Blount, *Jeffrey Madison (jr., 6-1, 158), *Kendrix-Wilson, Foxx, Kelly, Peterson, Touns

Special teams

Kicker: *David Castlin (jr., 6-3, 170)

Punter: *Castlin

Returner: *Madison

Long snapper: *Miller

(*Denotes projected starter)

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek