It was back in preseason training camp when reporters spoke with Mississippi State graduate transfer quarterback K.J. Costello and the veteran gave high praise to true freshman signal caller Will Rogers. At the time, most saw Costello as the surefire starter for the Bulldogs in 2020, but everyone from head coach Mike Leach to Costello couldn't say enough good things about the up-and-coming kid out of Brandon.
Costello noted that Rogers – a veteran of a pass-happy offensive attack in high school – was actually helping him learn the Leach Air Raid offense. Despite that, few could have foreseen what'd happen in the weeks that'd follow.
Costello did indeed win the job as MSU's starting quarterback heading into the season and he exploded onto the scene with a Southeastern Conference single-game record 623 passing yards in an upset win over defending national champion LSU in the 2020 opener. For Costello, there was little else to celebrate the rest of the way. He'd start the following four games and struggle mightily before getting injured at Alabama. The following week, in game six of the season, Rogers drew his first career start and kept that job the remainder of the way.
Overall, Rogers went 3-3 as State's starter. The Bulldogs either won, or lost by one score, in five of Rogers' six starts. The lone two-score loss was a 24-10 defeat to Auburn in which the Bulldogs were only down six points entering the fourth quarter.
Yes, there were certainly bumps in the road while Rogers got his feet wet in the ultra-tough SEC. But in the moments following State's season-closing Armed Forces Bowl win over Tulsa last week, Rogers couldn't help but look back on his first season in maroon and white with gratitude for how it all went down.
"I'm extremely grateful and extremely thankful," Rogers said. "I have nobody to thank but my lord and savior Jesus Christ. Nobody to thank but him. It has been a long year. We have been at it since June 1 and haven't had much of a break until now. I have enjoyed every second of it. I am going to take a week off and start getting ready for next year."
Now there are no guarantees Rogers will be State's starter in 2021. The Bulldogs just signed the highest-rated high school quarterback in MSU history last month (per 247Sports) when Texas prep star Sawyer Robertson inked to come to Starkville. The Bulldogs also signed another high school star from the Lone Star State in Daniel Greek, plus will welcome in former Southern Miss starting quarterback Jack Abraham as a transfer. There'll be plenty of competition for Rogers in the year ahead.
But there's no denying that when MSU's 2020 started to turn in a more positive direction was when Rogers grabbed the reins at quarterback. It wasn't always pretty, but he won his first start against Vanderbilt. Then, two weeks later – with a depleted roster due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols – Rogers led an undermanned MSU team into Georgia and nearly upset the nationally-ranked, SEC Eastern Division bunch of Bulldogs.
"I kind of took over the Vanderbilt game (after) K.J. (Costello) had went down," Rogers said. "I just tried to bring a bunch of energy and stuff like that to the game when I was in. I just tried to tell the guys, let's go out and give it everything we've got. We really didn't have anything to lose. We went to play (at Georgia), whatever they were (ranked), with probably the best defense in the SEC. It was just go out there and let it fly.
"I really felt like after the Vanderbilt game, and the way we were practicing from Georgia to Ole Miss to Missouri, it felt different being around the facility and out there on the practice field. You could tell guys were ready and things were starting to click. So I am really excited about things where they are heading into the future."
State's final two games cemented the potential of the 2021 season and beyond. The Bulldogs blew out a talented Missouri team in the regular season finale. MSU then topped No. 22 Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl to close out the season.
It put to bed a campaign that saw multiple freshmen blossom. Running backs Jo'quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson seemed to cement themselves as a playmaking duo in MSU's backfield. Receiver Jaden Walley had four straight games with 100 or more yards receiving to close out the regular season and looks like he's headed towards stardom. Fellow receiver Tulu Griffin looks like a dynamic offensive threat and is an absolute weapon on special teams as a returner. Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes had three interceptions he returned for touchdowns this season, setting a new single-season record at MSU and already tying the school mark for career pick-sixes.
And then, there was Rogers. He finished the year with a 69.1 percent completion percentage. That mark stands as the second-best by a true freshman in FBS history.
Now again, given the competition he'll face in the months to come, it's no slam dunk Rogers will be the man behind center next season as both he and the Bulldogs look to take further strides forward. That'll all play out in the not-too-distant future.
But no matter what the future holds, there is no changing the past and what Rogers did in his debut season. It was an experience Rogers will seemingly always cherish, even as he prepares himself for bigger and better things as his career continues.
"It's awesome. I am just blessed," Rogers said. "Like I said earlier, I have nobody to thank but my lord and savior Jesus Christ. He's been so incredible in my life. All this goes directly towards back to him. But yeah, it's awesome. Now we can't get complacent or anything like that and have to take the next step as a team and as a program. I am excited to get back in the weight room and doing seven-on-sevens so that I am ready to roll for next year too."