Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder returns for his senior season looking to add to his 6,905 career passing yards and 57 career touchdowns, but also to take on more of a leadership role.
“Here’s a guy who’s coming out for his fourth year, having played more football here than anybody,” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “He came back for a reason. Not just to improve throwing the ball. He came back to hone his leadership skills, too. To run the locker room and be that guy.”
No. 8 Cincinnati aims to be “that” team, the first non-Power Five program to crash the College Football Playoff party. The hype surrounding Fickell’s team has continued to build since he took over as coach five years ago.
The Bearcats return 16 starters from last year’s squad, which went 9-1 and lost 24-21 to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. But few are more important than Ridder, who passed for 2,296 yards and 19 touchdowns while completing better than 66% of his passes. He also had 12 rushing TDs.
Ridder threw six interceptions and has 20 for his career. The Bearcats QBs run sprints in practice for each INT they throw.
“Coach Fick asked me to get up and speak, and he asked me what I needed to do this camp to come out better,” Ridder said. “I said connection with my wide receivers. Just so we’re not missing balls by an inch or a foot. I’m staying after practice and working with the wide receivers. Not being complacent.”
Ridder is 30-5 as Cincinnati’s quarterback, making him the winningest QB in program history. But it hasn’t been an easy ride. Ridder had to overcome a rough sophomore season in which he completed 55% of his passes with a career-high nine INTs.
“I think he learned a lot from that sophomore year,” said Fickell, who has led the Bearcats to 31 wins and three straight bowl trips. “He put too much pressure on himself.”
Ridder will have plenty of talented support on offense this season, including 6-foot-7 tight end target Josh Whyle, who caught six touchdowns last season, and receivers Michael Young Jr. and Tre Tucker, who each hauled in three.
“I’m a lot more mature,” Ridder said. “Just letting the game come to me. Getting my completion percentage up. Giving the offense confidence. Just being a leader and taking control.”
Cincinnati is the first team from outside the Power Five to be ranked in the preseason Top 10 since Louisville started ninth in 2012. That was the Cardinals’ final season as a member of the American Athletic Conference before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. At No. 8, the Bearcats have the best preseason ranking for a non-Power Five or BCS conference team since Boise State was No. 5 to begin 2011.
The Bearcats defense allowed 325 total yards per game and ranked 13th nationally in total defense. Defensive end Myjai Sanders, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss, returned for his senior year. Defensive backs Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner combined for seven INTs last season. Cincinnati didn’t allow more than 13 points in a five-game stretch.
Nippert Stadium is expected to be at full capacity this season. Only immediate family members of players and coaches were allowed in the stands during the 2020 regular season and capacity for the American Athletic Conference championship game was limited to around 5,800 fans in the 40,000-seat stadium.
Cincinnati opens its season on Sept. 4 against rival Miami (OH) in Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats beefed up their schedule to include trips to No. 17 Indiana on Sept. 18 and No. 9 Notre Dame on Oct. 2. “We’re going to be in some big-time games this year,” Ridder said. “We need to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.”