The potentially historic quarterback class of the 2020 NFL Draft will face some stiff competition from a very talented 2021 NFL Draft class as well. Players like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields have received all the early headlines. Still, Mississippi State’s K.J. Costello is another name to watch as one of the top quarterback sleepers in this class. The well-traveled and talented signal-caller begins his journey as a Bulldog in 2020 after leaving Stanford for a chance at a fresh start.
Costello experienced a decent amount of success as a starter for Stanford in 2018. Still, he will be in a much different situation as he starts his career at Mississippi State under new coach Mike Leach. Below, I will take a look at Costello’s wild ride that led him to Starkville and what kind of impact he could have on the 2021 quarterback class. He is as gifted as they come, and with some help, he could wind up hearing his name called earlier than expected next April.
A new journey begins
Costello started as another highly touted, pro-style California quarterback out of Santa Margarita Catholic. He was a two-sport star, lettering in both football and basketball during his high school career. Costello was a four-star recruit, as rated by most major scouting outlets, and the gifted high school senior committed to Stanford University before the 2016 season. During his freshman season, he would wait in the wings behind the starting duo of Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns.
As a sophomore in 2017, Costello started to make his mark and threw for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns in seven games as a starter. He only threw four picks during those games and was able to showcase the type of talent that had Cardinal fans excited about his future. Heading into the 2018 season, Costello looked poised to become the next great Stanford QB behind guys like John Elway, Andrew Luck, Trent Edwards, and former Cleveland Browns’ starter, Kevin Hogan.
The big signal-caller passed for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns, which put him third all-time in school history, as he guided Stanford to a 9-4 record and a Sun Bowl victory. However, the injury bug cost Costello all but five games during his senior season in 2019. In December, Costello entered his name into the transfer portal as a graduate transfer, and shortly after, he committed to play the 2020 season at Mississippi State.
A fresh start as a Bulldog
The scene could not be any different for Costello as he enters the 2020 season as the favorite to start at quarterback for Mississippi State, but he remains a major sleeper for the 2021 NFL Draft. The coveted transfer goes from Stanford head coach David Shaw’s run-first type offense to a pass-first, passer-friendly offensive scheme that Leach successfully ran at Washington State. Leach runs the Air Raid offense, which should lead to even more significant numbers for Costello this season and a chance to show off his big arm and even bigger talent.
As I’ve previously mentioned, Leach has done wonders for quarterbacks and offensive players alike during his coaching ventures in college football. In recent years, signal-callers like Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon have thrived under Leach’s tutelage at Washington State. This past season, Gordon went from backup to a 5,000-yard passer with 48 touchdown tosses. The 2020 draft hopeful had nine games with over 400 yards through the air, including six games with four or more touchdowns.
There are some similarities between Gordon and Costello, which could lead to projected success in this Bulldogs’ offense in 2020. Both players are excellent pocket passes, with arm strength well above average and the ability to make most throws on the football field. Costello (6’5″) stands a bit taller than Gordon (6’3″), but both players read the field exceptionally well and have played well despite only starting one full season apiece.
They also show the confidence to challenge defenders downfield with great touch and accuracy to make throws in tight-windows consistently. Take a look below at this insane back-shoulder throw Costello makes on the sideline against San Diego State.
K.J. Costello is an extremely intriguing and yet polarizing prospect for me to watch. He shows consistent mechanics and powerful enough of an arm to succeed at the NFL level. pic.twitter.com/lOW37gLiQK
— Kyle Yates (@KyleYNFL) July 28, 2019
The most significant difference for Costello in 2020 will be the change in talent from the Pac-12 to the SEC. The defenses of the SEC are a notch above in terms of skill, speed, and overall athleticism. This season, Costello will square off against the elite of the elite in the SEC West. Mississippi State faces off against three teams that finished in the final Associated Press Top-25 last season in LSU, Alabama, and Auburn.
Costello a super sleeper quarterback in 2021
According to PFN’s most recent 2020 7-round NFL Mock Draft, LSU, Alabama, and Auburn project to have at least six total first-round picks combined on defense alone. 2021 should be no different, as those teams are loaded and ready to challenge for the national title. It will be an extremely tough road, but with Costello at the helm, Mississippi State could be a potential dark horse pick out of the SEC for the College Football Playoff.
If Costello can prove he has the goods and deliver against the SEC’s elite talent on defense, it will do absolute wonders for his stock in the 2021 NFL Draft. As one of the most talented quarterbacks in the SEC West and top sleepers available, Costello could be looking at an early second or even late-first round selection.
PFN’s own Matt Valdovinos recently discussed that “Costello could cement himself” as the QB3 in 2021 with “a great season” for the Bulldogs. With all of the talent that the former Stanford starter possesses, he is not without his flaws. In addition to his lack of overall athleticism, Costello’s mechanics seem to take a dip when facing a heavy rush, which leads to poor throws and interceptions. That aspect of his game will need to be corrected as he moves through the college season and draft process.
In terms of NFL comparisons for Costello, I see glimpses of another California kid in Los Angeles starter, Jared Goff. The Rams like to air it out quite a bit and keep a speedy, up-tempo offense with Goff at the helm. Costello will get a taste of that type of attack this year with Leach. Leach will keep the ball moving, and Costello will command an offense that gets the ball out quickly and allows him to produce accurate throws.
Both players have a bit of a long delivery, but this does not affect their ability to be accurate and get the ball delivered on time. Like Goff, Costello is not much of an athlete in terms of running ability, but he will occasionally take off and pick up a first down if the opportunity presents itself. The Rams typically do a great job at utilizing the running backs in the passing game, which is something Leach did well last year with WSU starter, Max Borghi. He will attempt to do that again this season with Bulldogs’ starting running back and 2021 draft hopeful, Kylin Hill. Both Costello and Hill could be potential stars in this offense and top-50 picks in the next year’s 2021 NFL Draft.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the 2021 NFL Draft. You can follow him at @sgormanPFN on Twitter.