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Rockdale tries to rebound

CONYERS -- A new era of Rockdale High School football is about to begin. The Bulldogs, who reached the Class AAAA final four two years ago, will be starting the 2011 season without three of the best defensive players to ever come through the program. Those three are two-time all-state defensive lineman Grady Jarrett, now battling for playing time as a true freshman at Clemson, lineman Jerry Mathis, a projected starter at Samford, and free safety Neville Hewitt, now at Georgia Military College. Bulldogs coach Mike Etheridge recognizes the hole each player left, but also that the entire team, which went 4-6 a year ago, must improve.

"We just got to get stronger overall, you're going to have a hard time replacing Neville, Grady and Jerry, great players," said coach Mike Etheridge, in his fourth season as head coach of the Conyers school. "You're not going to be able to replace those guys. We got to constantly get better."

Rockdale followed the euphoria of the final four season with the disappointment of last year, which included lopsided losses to Region 8-AAAA's top two teams, Flowery Branch and Clarke Central. Despite the key losses, Etheridge is pleased with the fact that so many players have spent the spring and summer vying for playing time.

"One thing that's positive for us right now is we've got a lot of competition, not like it's been the last few years," said Etheridge. "We got a lot of guys battling for playing time."

One spot that appears secure is under center, where junior Zachary Powell takes over the starting reins from Darion Clark. Powell played sparingly in 2010, but Etheridge is confident in his new signal caller, though three new players will occupy spots on the line.

"(Powell) mopped up some games last year, he's got a little bit of experience," Etheridge said. "He threw the ball pretty good when he had time (in last week's scrimmage). Three sophomores on the offensive line, it's going to take a little bit but they'll get there. We feel like we still got a ways to go."

Week one brings Winder-Barrow to Reid Stadium on Friday. The Bulldogs are currently on a 14-game losing streak, having gone winless in 2010 and still searching for their first win since October, 2009.

"Winder's better than they were last year, they've improved in a lot of areas," Etheridge said. "Right now, as young as we are, everybody's a good test."