Rockdale has tough task ahead

CONYERS - Rockdale is ready to launch a new era in football.

Veteran coach Mike Etheridge is now in charge of the Bulldog program after spending seven years as an assistant at county rival Salem. He replaces William Johnson, who guided Rockdale to a 1-9 record in his only season at the helm.

Etheridge laid the groundwork for this season during the spring and summer. Now, he's looking forward to the new season.

The Bulldogs open their campaign Friday night against visiting Madison County at Reid Memorial Stadium.

"I feel like we have a chance to be competitive, but we have a long way to go," he said. "I feel like our team is working hard, and I feel like they will improve every day. We also feel like we have some team speed."

On offense, Etheridge has a commodity that he can count on - senior running back Javon Lucas, who rushed for an area-high 1,107 yards last season.

At split end, Ryan Culbreath, a 6-foot-4 220-pound senior, is drawing preseason accolades in various publications.

In the backfield, Isaiah Gresham is the frontrunner at quarterback, while Darius Lucas is also in the mix. Besides Darius Lucas at fullback, the Bulldogs also have David Callaway and Tavarius Williams.

Joining Culbreath at split end are Jonathan Sanford and Nolan Roberts. The tight ends are Tyler Kelly and Xavier Molette.

On the offensive line, the tackles are Tarik Dudley, Thomas Schimmel, Benji Bradley and Jerry Mathis. The guards are Zack Mathis, Correl Filmore, Grady Jarrett and Travis Frisbey. Kyle Geise and Ronald Martin are at center.

"We have a running back in Javon Lucas who is doing very well," Etheridge said. "Quarterback Isaiah Gresham, split end Ryan Culbreath, split end Jonathan Sanford and tight end Tyler Kelly have also looked good so far."

On defense, Etheridge likes what he's seen so far out of middle linebacker Devon Washington, outside linebacker Rashawn Binns, outside linebacker Rashaud Ferrell, cornerback Adrian Brown and free safety Neville Hewitt.

Hewitt had five interceptions as a freshman last season.

Also in the mix at linebacker are Chris Brooks and Eric Lloyd.

In the secondary, Bernard Shadon, Armis Ferguson, Gerald Ashworth are vying at cornerback along with Brown. At free safety, Hewitt is joined by Cordy Brandon.

On the defensive front, Molette, Kelly and Bradley are at the ends, while Jarrett and Schimmel are the tackles.

The punting chores are down to a battle between Darius Lucas and Schimmel, while Rachael Ceciliani and Schimmel are vying for the place-kicking duties. Handling the kickoffs will be either Schimmel or Sanford.

"At this time of the year, we have a lot of concerns," Etheridge said. "But I think we will work through them."

Rockdale doesn't get any time to ease into its schedule this year.

The Bulldogs will tangle will Madison County, a perennial playoff contender in Region 8-AAAA, in their opener. Then Rockdale squares off against county rival Salem in week two, which will mark Etheridge's return to his old stomping grounds as well as Salem's first game in its new on-campus stadium.

In the third week, the Bulldogs close out the Rockdale County rivalry games by hosting Heritage. Last season, Rockdale scored its only victory of the season by beating the Patriots 22-14 in overtime.

The Bulldogs will then play three of their next four games on the road at Apalachee, Cedar Shoals and Winder-Barrow. Their only home game during that stretch is against Clarke Central.

Rockdale closes out the season by hosting two of its final three games. The Bulldogs host Region 8-AAAA power Habersham Central, travel to Loganville and then wrap up the regular season by entertaining Monroe Area, which is directed by former Rockdale coach Matt Fligg.

Jeff Gillespie can be reached at jeff.gillespie@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: At a glance

Team: Rockdale football

Coach: Mike Etheridge (first season)

Last year's record: 1-9

Key returning players: Javon Lucas, Ryan Culbreath, Neville Hewitt

First game: Friday vs. Madison County at Reid Memorial Stadium,

7:30 p.m.