K.J. Costello has questions to answer, but with Mike Leach, 1 thing feels like a safe bet
I honestly have no idea.
If you asked me to sit here and rank SEC quarterbacks heading into 2020, I’d give you a bit of a blank stare and transition the conversation into what I like and don’t like about each quarterback.
The question marks are there for every SEC starting quarterback. There are no Tua Tagovailoas, Joe Burrows or Jake Fromms. We have more questions than answers at the quarterback position than any season in recent memory, which is why Kyle Trask or Kellen Mond could earn 1st-team All-SEC honors at SEC Media Days this July.
How fitting that K.J. Costello joined the fray. The Stanford graduate transfer joining forces with Mike Leach at Mississippi State is, by all accounts, a major lift for the Bulldogs. They added someone who Stanford fans (among others) argued was a top 10 quarterback in the country entering the 2019 season. But injuries plagued Costello’s frustrating year, and ultimately, he found himself looking for a new home to maximize his NFL potential this fall.
The questions are obvious. How will Costello operate the Air-Raid system? Can he stay healthy enough like he did in 2018 when he earned 2nd-team All-Pac-12 honors? How will he transition to a conference with better overall speed on defense?
I don’t have answers to those questions just yet. There is a question I do feel like I have an answer to.
“Who will lead the SEC in passing in 2020?”
At the end of the season, I’ll be surprised if anyone another than the new MSU quarterback wins the SEC passing title.
Granted, I’m not basing that entirely on Costello’s skill set alone. Those tools are there, especially from an accuracy standpoint. You can bet that’s why Leach went after Costello to run his offense.
I’m basing that on the belief that if Leach hand-plucks a quarterback to run his Air-Raid offense, that person is going to throw for a ton of yards. Nothing is a guarantee in college football, but Leach cranking out a top 10 passing offense is as close to one as there is. And no, that wasn’t just because he talked Gardner Minshew out of being Alabama’s 3rd-string quarterback so it could lead the country in passing.
Leach’s passing offenses at Washington State were, in case you needed a refresher, money in the bank:
You probably already knew these numbers if you’re reading this, but it’s worth remembering that Leach even put up the Pac-12’s top passing offense in Year 1 at Washington State. That was the place that had 2 starting quarterbacks. Who were they? Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday.
With all due respect to Tuel and Halliday, but I think Costello has a touch more talent than those guys. I’m not just saying that because Costello was once ranked ahead of quarterbacks like Dwayne Haskins and Jalen Hurts in the 2016 class (only Shea Patterson and Jacob Eason were higher-rated quarterback recruits that year). I’m saying that because Costello already showed that he can fit throws into tight windows at the Power 5 level.
Looking at other draft-eligible QBs: Stanford’s K.J. Costello could take a step forward this year.
He has big-bodied targets and he knows how to throw away from the defense’s leverage to allow them to make plays pic.twitter.com/GVTOz5Truv
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) August 13, 2019
Those windows should be even bigger in Leach’s offense. They’ll have to be because if there’s anything we learned from the shortcomings of MSU’s offense under Joe Moorhead, it’s that the Bulldog receivers weren’t the best at getting separation. That’s not a position that can be rebuilt overnight. It’s hard to run a system predicated on more passing than anyone in America if receivers struggle with drops.
But this is about Leach establishing his identity in Year 1. That’s why Costello will be the quarterback and not Garrett Shrader or Keytaon Thompson.
Based on his decades of experience running his offense, Leach knows exactly the tools one needs to run his system (accuracy, brains and coachability). He doesn’t care about having a quarterback with a cannon. Even if it meant he could change Key West to “Leachland,” you wouldn’t have been able to convince Leach to pursue Costello if he was a sub-50% passer. The fact that he’s a career 63% passer probably carried more weight with Leach than any of Costello’s next-level attributes (Minshew was only a 58% passer when Leach recruited him).
And to be clear, just because I believe Costello will lead the SEC in passing doesn’t necessarily mean I think he’s going to win 10 games. I’ll be stunned if that happened in the toughest division in football. Shoot, I’m not even convinced that Costello is going to be an All-SEC quarterback at season’s end.
The realistic goal for Leach this year is to show that his system can succeed in the SEC.
It’s being able to have a proof of concept to say to this rather unfamiliar recruiting ground, “Look, I can put you in position to put up monster numbers and play in a fun, modern offense that the NFL is finally starting to acknowledge.” You’ve probably heard several fans from the Magnolia State say that you aren’t just going to line up and beat Alabama straight up. You’ve got to have a little something different. Leach, in every way, is that something different.
By making Costello the face of his offense in Year 1, Leach has an extremely favorable chance of running his offense the way he did putting up big numbers at Washington State. In his perfect world, this year establishes that there’s the same answer to a question that gets asked before every season.
“Who will lead the SEC in passing?”
Whoever is starting at quarterback for Mississippi State.