STARKVILLE — K.J. Costello never dreamed of concluding his college career in a tiny corner of northeast Mississippi.
He’s a California kid tried and true. Costello’s hair is poetically bleached blonde, though not quite long enough to emit cliched comparisons to famed Golden State signal caller Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass. As a kid, he spent much of his childhood on the golf course at the Coto de Caza Golf and Racquet Club, even winning a junior tournament over a future University of Florida golfer.
His demeanor too mimics the calm, cool and collected Californian in him. He’s poignant in his wording, thoughtful in his breakdowns of questions from reporters and mature in the way he carries himself for a 23-year-old kid from south of Los Angeles and west of Murrieta.
But after a four-year career at Stanford, in the ever-buzzing town of Palo Alto where the next Thiels and Musks wander the collegiate grounds, Costello finds himself in the Deep South. Trading his Cardinal red for maroon, he now takes over at quarterback for a football-crazed program in Mississippi State that after a win over then-No. 6 and defending national champion LSU might be just good enough to drop a bomb on the seersucker-clad, bow tie-wearing Southeastern Conference fraternity.
“I think from Day 1, the effort and attitude of this team is something that’s inspired me and I’ve respected, as well,” Costello said at his first press availability Sept. 15. “I’ve definitely seen coming to the SEC, you know, the slogan they always say, ‘It means more.’ I’ve seen it just in the day-to-day practice.”
That athletic success came to Costello shouldn’t be all that surprising.
His father, Kevin, played quarterback for two years at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, while his mother, Annette, ran track in high school. Middle sister Tiffany, a marathon runner who qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials ahead of the since-postponed Tokyo Olympics, is the most prolific of the bunch: She’s currently training for the 2024 Olympic Games.
“She runs close to 100 miles a week in training,” Kevin explained. “She loves running — not like mom or dad, but she’s our runner.”
The youngest of three siblings, K.J. and Tiffany are separated by just 11 months, while eldest-sister Paige is nearly three years his senior. The trio are close. Kevin says they spend ample time together when home in California and speak on the phone almost every day.
Costello, or Kevin Jr., is similarly tight with the man with whom he shares a name. Kevin coached K.J. in football, basketball and baseball as the head coach or right below it until high school. Today, the pair FaceTime every night between 11 p.m. and midnight.
“That’s usually when we get all caught up after the day and just see how the day went and just kind of touch base on some stuff,” Kevin said.
Boasting an athletic background and a family keen to watch him compete, Costello picked up football early. He played quarterback and linebacker for his local flag football team before progressing into pads and later to the middle and high school ranks.
He arrived in Palo Alto as the fourth-highest rated Cardinal quarterback signee since 247sports began rating recruits. Those ahead of him? High-four-star prospect Keller Chryst and future NFL signal-callers Trent Edwards and Andrew Luck.
Costello bided his time with the Cardinal, redshirting his first year on campus before starting seven games during his redshirt freshman campaign. A breakout sophomore season followed. He passed for over 3,500 yards and tossed 29 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, earning second team all-Pac-12 honors.
“In spurts he looked as good as anybody in America (playing) quarterback,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said of Costello at Pac-12 Media Days in July 2019.
Costello’s redshirt junior year was supposed to be simple. He’d finish his degree in political science and hopefully play well enough to consider an early entry into the NFL draft. Pro day, the combine and, ultimately, draft night would ensue. In a perfect world, he’d be a first-round pick. His bank account would read eight figures before his 23rd birthday.
Things began according to plan. Costello torched Northwestern for 152 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-20 passing in less than two quarters of play to open the season. Then came the hit.
With less than 10 seconds remaining in the second quarter and the Cardinal near midfield, Costello dropped back to pass. With no one open, he stepped into the pocket, crossed the line of scrimmage, scrambled for a few yards and went into a slide. Northwestern defensive lineman Earnest Brown IV then flew toward him, leading with the crown of his helmet, nearly decapitating the then-junior quarterback. Costello was helped off the field and was diagnosed with a concussion.
The final blow to his once-promising Stanford career came three weeks later at home against Oregon. Whipping a pass out of the backfield, Costello’s throwing thumb smacked into a helmet in front of him. Soldiering through what Kevin believes was later diagnosed as a fracture, his thumb was three times its normal size by game’s end.
“He wanted to stay in,” Kevin said. “He wanted to play.”
Costello played two more games at Stanford — a win over Arizona and a loss to Colorado — though a lingering shoulder issue also limited his effectiveness. With his degree in hand and looking for a way to further his NFL draft prospects, Costello spoke with Stanford head coach David Shaw about exploring the transfer portal. Kevin says Shaw was open to the idea and would welcome K.J. back should he want to return.
Entering the portal in mid-December, Costello was quickly sought after. Among those interested? Washington State and head coach Mike Leach.
All but assured he’d conclude his career in Pullman, following in the steps of Gardner Minshew II’s mustached run through the Pac-12 the year before, Costello and his family had planned a visit to the Palouse in early January. Then things went dark. The Costellos didn’t hear from Leach or the recruiting staff for between 48 and 72 hours. In the interim, Leach was at his vacation home in Key West signing on to fill Joe Moorhead’s job in Starkville.
Having settled on the Cougars given their belief in Leach, his air raid system, and the intelligence he brings to a quarterback room, the family briefly regrouped then pivoted. A visit to Starkville followed. So too did Costello’s public commitment to MSU on Feb. 3. For the first time in his life, Costello was leaving California for, of all places, rural Mississippi.
Costello arrived at MSU on June 1 eager to compete.
He never had to endure surgery for his thumb, but vigorous physical therapy ensued each morning to boost flexibility. Sessions with private trainers near his home in Rancho Santa Margarita ensured his physical fitness and bolstered his agility. Days concluded bouncing between two different quarterback coaches in the area.
“I was rehabbing, I think, harder than anyone else in the country two to three times per day,” Costello said. “Literally 8, 12, 4 o’clock, every single day, probably overdoing it, for four or five months.”
Player-run practices in June and July at nearby Starkville High School or, when possible, at the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex began in earnest upon his arrival in Mississippi. Strength and conditioning coach Tyson Brown also pushed Costello and the rest of the Bulldogs through labor-intensive summer workouts in preparation for fitness needed to run the air raid.
Going about his business with a quiet confidence, Costello quickly gained trust among his teammates. He and Brandon product Will Rogers even set out teaching what they expected to be Leach’s offense.
Costello was loosely trained in the gunslinging system having watched Washington State tape during his time at Stanford. He also received film from MSU’s video staff of Minshew, former Texas Tech quarterback and current USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and former Cougar quarterback Anthony Gordon to watch over the summer.
“By the time I got here, Leach’s kind of mentality gave me a new wind,” Costello said Tuesday. “I like that old-school kind of stuff.”
In a non-COVID-19-afflicted world, Costello’s first start in the maroon and white would’ve come Sept. 3 against New Mexico. Instead, the SEC’s rejiggered slate served him a shot at defending national champion LSU in Death Valley.
By now, the narrative is stuff of legend. Costello torched the Tiger defense for an MSU and SEC single-game record 623 yards and five touchdowns. He became the first quarterback in history to eclipse 500 yards at Tiger Stadium. He and Mike Leach’s air raid offense sailed into the bayou and put cannon ball-sized holes in the persistent narrative that the air raid can’t function in the ground-and-pound physicality of the SEC.
There were mishaps, sure. Costello surrendered two interceptions and two fumbles in a nearly debilitating manner. But like a prize fighter ceremoniously rising from the mat, the former Stanford signal-caller delivered the knockout blow — a 24-yard teardrop pass into the back right corner of the end zone with 3:39 remaining.
With a flick of the wrist and a toe tap, Costello called game.
“It’s a vertical,” Costello said of the route Mitchell ran. “Everyone in the country runs verticals, but when you’ve just thrown three or four or six passes in a row leading up to that play, that defensive back ran around the field quite a bit. He’s not playing the same way he was on that first play. We were willing to attack him.”
His high school coach, Harry Welch, who watched the game on television back in Coto de Caza, wasn’t shocked at the performance. Welch, a 42-year high school coaching veteran in California who notched more than 250 career victories, had seen Costello as a lanky middle schooler watching practice at Santa Margarita. He oversaw the transition of incumbent starter Kyle Sweet, who eventually played for Leach at Washington State, from quarterback to receiver to make space for Costello under center. He watched as Costello tossed touchdown passes of 85 and 95 yards on the first two throws of his high school starting career as a sophomore. He respected when Costello refused to be taken out of a game despite flu-like symptoms that saw him vomit through his facemask on the field, before he wandered back toward the huddle.
“He’s always handled the physical and the intellectual and the mental (and) emotional challenge supremely,” Welch told The Dispatch. “He’s a great kid, now he’s not the second coming, but a wonderful young man and a pretty darn good quarterback.”
For Costello, the win over LSU in Baton Rouge is behind him. His first appearance at Davis Wade Stadium awaits Saturday against a sneakily improved Arkansas team. Kevin and Annette will be in attendance, as they were at Tiger Stadium a week ago.
A year after plans for Costello’s future went haywire, he’s promptly captured college football’s consciousness in a matter of a week. Raised in Rancho Santa Margarita, matured in Palo Alto and thriving in Starkville, it’s easy to forget Costello has only delivered one week’s worth of eye-popping stats, but the California kid seems right at home in the Magnolia State.
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.