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Bulldogs ride roller coaster to 5-5 season
Rockdale shows four-game improvement in Etheridge's first year as coach

Rockdale's 2008 football season was full of peaks and valleys.

The Bulldogs finished the season 5-5 under first-year coach Mike Etheridge, a four-game improvement over last season.

Rockdale opened the season with a 24-15 victory over Madison County before sweeping county rivals Salem 19-0 and Heritage 40-38 to claim the Conyers Cup.

But then, the Bulldogs lost five of their final seven games, some by razor-thin margins. In fact, Rockdale dropped four of its five losses by a total of just 18 points.

After falling 17-0 at Apalachee, Rockdale dropped a 37-32 decision to Clarke Central at home. The next week in Athens, the Bulldogs were shut out by Cedar Shoals 6-0.

Rockdale got back on the winning track with a 32-9 win at Winder-Barrow.

With the playoffs on the line, the Bulldogs' chances were dashed by a 6-0 loss to Habersham Central and a 7-6 loss to eventual region champion Loganville.

In the season finale, the Bulldogs topped Monroe Area 28-15 to finish the season at .500.

"I think we made some progress in a lot of areas, but we've got to improve in a lot of others," Etheridge said. "We have to be more fundamentally sound. However, the kids played hard every game, which was very important.

"I think we were close to having a great season. I believe we were about four plays away from being 9-1. We had a chance to win four more games. Now we've got to just gain some ground and get better."

The Bulldogs were inconsistent on offense, scoring 19 or more points six times. However, they were shut out three times and scored only six points in one game.

"On offense, we were good at times and bad at times," Etheridge said. "We must work to be more consistent and not bite ourselves in the football. We have to get stronger on the offensive line. Our kids up there played well, but we were just not strong enough to finish off some blocks. We have to get better in the little things, which add to big things."

On defense, the Bulldogs surrendered 150 points in 10 games, but half of those points came in two games against Heritage and Clarke Central.

"I think for the most part our defense played well," Etheridge said. "We must get a little better on our pass defense. We made some great gains on defense this year, now we must just keep improving."

The Bulldogs will suffer some keys losses due to graduation.

On offense, Rockdale will lose its top two running backs, Javon Lucas and David Calloway, who combined for 1,377 rushing yards and 599 receiving yards. The offensive line trio of Tommy Schimmel, Kyle Geise and Zack Mathis will depart, as well as tight end Tyler Kelly. Wide receiver Ryan Culbreath, who had 20 catches and five touchdowns, will be another graduation loss.

"We are losing a lot of great kids on both sides on the ball that will be hard to replace. Not only starters but others that came off the bench to help," Etheridge said. "We will have to work hard in replacing half of our offensive line, two running backs, a tight end, three members of our secondary and a linebacker.

"We feel like we have a good group coming back, but we must work to fill the holes where we lost people."

For next season, Etheridge is focusing on the kicking game as one area where the Bulldogs need to improve.

"Our special teams for the most part did a good job covering and punting this year. We did a great job kicking the ball off," he said. "We must work harder on extra points, field goal and punt returns.

"We will be working to get better in all phases of the game, but mainly to be more consistent on offense and in the kicking game."

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