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Last Dance: Becoming a Girl Dad helped keep star QB in college football

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CINCINNATI – With Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder and his longtime girlfriend, Claire Cornett, expecting their first child earlier this spring, Ridder found himself in the middle of a parental rite of passage.

A few months after helping push the Cincinnati into the midst of the College Football Playoff conversation, Ridder faced a different daunting task.

The couple set out to assemble their daughter’s crib, and they decided on building it in the living room because the baby’s room was cluttered. A few hours later, they prevailed through the maze of directions and parts, only to find out that the crib wouldn’t fit in the bedroom door.

Thus began the de-assembling of the crib. A side was removed, followed by the crib’s legs before some wiggling and contorting that culminated in a soul-crushing defeat. “We ended up taking it damn near all apart,” Ridder told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “And then putting it back together inside of the room.”

Last week, Desmond and Claire welcomed their baby girl, Leighton Elizabeth, at 6 pounds, 14 ounces and 18.5 inches. Dad never could have imagined so much pink — onesies, toys and a chair – at the home he and Claire share in nearby Fort Thomas, Kentucky.

That life-changing moment also meant that one of the most prominent players in college football this season will both be rocking a Girl Dad shirt and remains at the forefront of the sport because he’s a Girl Dad.

Ridder’s return to Cincinnati for his redshirt senior season came rooted in both football and family. He wanted to be in a familiar environment for moments like crib assembling — and reassembling. He also wanted to remain the linchpin of the Bearcats' attempt to recreate the magic of their undefeated 2020 regular season.

“Once I’m drafted, I’m flying out the next day and just having so many uncertainties as far as leaving," Ridder said. "That’s part of the reason why I stayed. I just knew coming back, things would be more concrete than they would be if I were to leave. I felt like that was a security blanket.”

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder reacts on the field following the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Tulsa, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 27-24. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder celebrates on the field following the American Athletic Conference championship game against Tulsa on Dec. 19, 2020, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 27-24. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Around Cincinnati, Ridder’s return will be celebrated with more than diaper parties. Cincinnati projects as a preseason top-10 program, looms again as a College Football Playoff antagonist and affords Ridder the opportunity to become one of the winningest quarterbacks in the history of college football.

Ridder is the winningest active quarterback in college football, as he’s 30-5 as a starter at Cincinnati. Scouts projected the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder somewhere around the fourth round of the NFL draft if he’d declared this year. By returning, Ridder has Cincinnati primed for one of the most special seasons in school history, as it has gone 11-2 (2018), 11-3 (2019) and 9-1 (2020) the past three seasons.

Cincinnati returns 16 starters from a team that won the AAC and featured the country’s No. 8 scoring defense (16.8 ppg) and No. 17 scoring offense (37.5). “We've got the makings of a better team on paper,” coach Luke Fickell told Yahoo Sports.

After leading Georgia by double digits in the fourth quarter of the Peach Bowl, the Bearcats lost on a 53-yard field goal with three seconds left. Ridder entered that game with a “maybe this is it” mindset and left with a nagging desire to rewrite the ending. “I was close,” he said about leaving for the NFL. He added: “After the Georgia game, I just felt there was something still out there. There was something left in me. I know we can take this program and leave it way better than we found it."

That leaves Ridder’s 2021 season with the dual purpose of helping build the foundation for his own family while helping Cincinnati continue to raise its national profile. The Bearcats visit Indiana and Notre Dame in back-to-back early season non-conference games that could propel them to become playoff spoilers. A year after peaking at No. 7 in the CFP rankings before getting leapfrogged by schools with more losses, Cincinnati has the cachet and schedule to make a much louder case.

Fickell ticks off all the requisite coaching cliché qualifiers of hard work, focus and a pinch of luck before declaring Cincinnati reaching the playoff as a viable possibility. “I truly believe it can happen,” Fickell said. “There's an opportunity. What more can you ask for? Does it have to be everything aligning right? Yeah.”

Ridder’s return aids that alignment exponentially. After throwing for 19 touchdowns, rushing for 12 more and completing 66.2% of his passes, there’s still plenty of room for Ridder to develop as Cincinnati’s offense opens up.

Fickell has had countless opportunities to leave for high-profile jobs, and he’s appreciative enough of Ridder sticking around for a last dance that he’s finding creative ways to be sure his quarterback keeps developing.

The staff encouraged a trip this spring to visit private quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer in California to expand Ridder's horizons. Strength coach Brady Collins set a goal for Ridder to gain 10 more pounds to play at 225, a considerable jump from him arriving at 176 pounds and his lack of bulk earning him the nickname “Calvin Klein model.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has focused on putting Ridder in “a position to be uncomfortable.” Ridder will also be sitting in on the coaching meetings on Sundays this fall to help him gain a different perspective. “Just so he understands kind of the what and whys of why we're attacking it,” quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Gino Guidugli said. “I think it'll help him down the road.”

NFL scouts want to see a more polished passer. When Guidugli broke down Ridder’s completion chart this offseason, he was under 50% on passes to his left. Ridder especially struggled with shorter balls in that direction, so they’ve worked on footwork to correct it. They also have put a premium on deep ball accuracy, as Guidugli noted some over-the-top misses on shots in games against Army, Austin Peay and South Florida. “If he hits some of those ones early in the season, he may be coming out this year in the draft instead of coming back,” Guidugli said.

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The Bearcat offense should be loaded this year with Alabama transfer tailback Jerome Ford — “he’s going to be special,” Guidugli says — and two NFL-caliber tight ends in Leonard Taylor and Josh Whyle (six TDs), who reminds Denbrock of former Notre Dame star Tyler Eifert.

An offense that promises to be more aggressive in early down situations is complemented by a defense that simultaneously frustrates and helps develop Ridder daily. The stars of first-year coordinator Mike Tressel’s defense would pop at any level, as there are few better corner pairings in the country than fifth-year Coby Bryant (four INTs) and true junior Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. At 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds, Gardner could thrust himself into first-round NFL discussions with a big season and some added weight.

Senior end Myjai Sanders (seven sacks) has such a high motor that Fickell claims he’ll lose 9 pounds during a single practice. He’s so disruptive he’s required to sit out parts of practice against the first-team offense so it can run plays. “Sometimes our throws, our reads are off as quarterbacks,” Ridder said of the constant defensive pressure. “It doesn't let us just sit back there and be a robot.”

On Ridder’s trip to California to work out with Palmer, he got an education in stability, mobility and how the connectivity of the body can impact the throwing motion. A stiff ankle can impact the knee, which can have a kinetic impact on accuracy. “Really learning that throwing isn't just about arms and upper body, but it's about your full body and keeping everything in contact,” Ridder said.

Palmer came away impressed with Ridder’s talent, athleticism and the coaching he’d received from Guidugli, the only quarterbacks coach Ridder has had at UC who Palmer said he has a “ton of admiration for” as a teacher. It’s also not lost on Palmer that Ridder’s “all-ball” focus doesn’t stray outside football and family, as he’s already flashed the habits and mannerisms of a pro.

Ridder’s decision to return could pay big draft dividends, as Palmer forecasted that Ridder would have reached the top of the second tier in this draft — think the neighborhood of Kellen Mond, Kyle Trask and Davis Mills — had he declared and thrown in front of teams.

Ridder’s 30 wins put him in position to be one of the five winningest starting quarterbacks in the history of the sport. Kellen Moore at 50-3 and Colt McCoy at 45-8 are out of reach, but Ridder could pass Peyton Manning (39-6) or perhaps catch David Greene (42-10) and end up immortalized in elite company.

“He can significantly elevate his draft status for next year,” Palmer said. “There’s a chance he’s something like 43-5 and NFL people are saying, ‘Oh, this is one of the best college football players ever.’”

For now, Ridder is trying his best to be the best Girl Dad and football captain he can. In February, he moved out of the apartment he shared with friends near campus across the Ohio River to prepare a home with Claire to raise Leighton. The diaper parties have yielded a bounty that exceeds even his win total, as they’ve collected more than 3,000 — 400 newborn diapers, 1,400 1s, 790 2s, 313 3s and 256 4s.

“I know babies go through a whole bunch of diapers,” Ridder said with a laugh. “But it’s ridiculous the stockpile we’ve got going and just how much stuff we have already.”

For now, diaper stock is the couple’s primary concern. Next year, right around Leighton’s first birthday, they can worry about draft stock.

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