It’s not quite 6 a.m., which means Keegan Williams is one of just a few on the interstate right now. The sun hasn’t yet joined him but should start to show by the time he arrives at Oceanside in Mount Pleasant.
The early-morning commute from Summerville is peaceful. It gives him to time to think. The music is low. It’s the opening day of fall practice of his senior season. He’s becoming increasingly introspective during these fleeting final months of his high school career. The 1,000-yard rusher feels further from where he once was but not quite where he wants to be. He’s stuck somewhere between unknown and unstoppable.
Sean Cooney understands Williams’ position well. Last year’s flicker of success has only fueled his flame. He used to dream of playing college football as kid growing up in Johns Creek, Ga. Now it’s a realistic possibility, probability even. But just as time and opportunity are dwindling for Oceanside’s senior running back, they too are slipping away from its senior quarterback.
Cooney and Williams have the potential to be among the best quarterback and running back tandems in the state this season. The stats are expected to pile tall. But they’re both seemingly late bloomers by typical college recruiting standards. They hold exactly zero college scholarship offers between the two of them.
These next few months are likely their final opportunity to prove themselves. This fall figures to be the last chance to prove that everything they’ve put into the game has been worth it, to prove to college recruiters that they’re worth it.
“We’ve been putting in so much work,” Cooney said. “Hopefully it’ll all pay off this year.”
“I mean, senior year,” Williams added. “It has to be now.”
Williams grew up in Summerville, a quaint southern town known best for azaleas in the spring and football in the fall. The local Green Wave high school team runs as rich in tradition as any you’ll find. Yet Williams opted ahead of his sophomore season to transfer 45 minutes south to Oceanside Collegiate, a school then entering just its second year of existence. It was tough leaving behind his friends and normal life for the unknown. The trek to and from school every day can be exhausting. The foreign setting and unusual routine wears on you.
“My friends questioned me on why I would do that,” Williams said. “But something was telling me that Oceanside was the place I needed to be.”
He thought the move might be better for what seemed to be a budding basketball career. A few other standout hoopers from around the area were enrolling at Oceanside about the same time. But three years later Williams is still trying to crack 6 feet without including his hi-top hair. He’s grown just a few inches taller since freshman year.
“I come from a family of basketball players so I thought I was a basketball player,” he said. “But then I realized that I connect better with football and wanted to pursue that path.”
Williams was ineligible for varsity play his first calendar year at Oceanside because of S.C. High School League transfer rules. That cost him his sophomore year and then two games of his junior season. He was forced to watch as Oceanside flipped from a winless inaugural season to seven wins the following year, its first under head coach Chad Grier. Netflix documented the remarkable turnaround. Williams doesn’t need to watch the docuseries. He had a front-row seat, left in a weird sort of limbo as all he could do was wait for time to pass.
“It was wack” Williams put bluntly.
“It was tough. I’d heard about (Grier) and his Davidson Day championships and how he was trying to build that culture back up in Charleston,” he continued. Grier won four state championships in six years as head coach of Davidson Day (N.C.) from 2011-2016. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
Williams was finally unleashed in Oceanside’s third game of the season last fall. He tallied 129 yards, averaging 7.5 per carry and scored four touchdowns in the first varsity football game of his career. He put up 214 yards, running, catching and throwing a touchdown the following week.
He finished his shortened season with 1,422 yards and 22 touchdowns. Not every team in the state lists its statistics on MaxPreps but the high school database does include rushing numbers for 166 backs in Class AA. Williams led all of them in rushing and total yard averages per game.
MaxPreps includes nearly 350 running backs statewide. Williams’ average of 164 total yards per game ranked sixth-best among those who played more than five games, regardless of classification. His yardage total, extrapolating his per-game average over the full 11-game season, would’ve landed him sixth overall. Using the same logic, he would’ve scored roughly 27 touchdowns, which would’ve ranked third among running backs in the entire state.
“It’s like I’m back there watching Madden,” Cooney said of playing beside Williams. “He’s like a young Le’Veon Bell with the reads and the cuts he can make. It’s pretty awesome. That kid is something special, man.”
Cooney isn’t too bad him himself. The long 6-foot-5 quarterback transferred to Oceanside ahead of his junior season from Johns Creek, a AAAAAA nestled school just outside of Atlanta. He saw the field in five games during his sophomore season with the Gladiators, completing roughly half of his 61 attempts for 253 yards and three touchdowns.
Cooney’s father, Richard, was being relocated for work in the summer of 2018. His options were either Kansas City or Charleston. Cooney wasn’t thrilled about moving to a new state midway through high school. But his Cousin, Patrick, was a defensive line coach and math teacher at Oceanside. He apprised the family what the football team was building in Charleston and of Grier’s pedigree of past quarterbacks. Grier has had three full-time starting quarterbacks in his eight years as a head coach. All three went on to play Division I college football. One — his son, Will — is now in the NFL, and the most recent — 2018 Oceanside graduate Sam Hartman — was the starting quarterback at Wake Forest last fall.
“It was an obvious choice coming to Chucktown. I knew there was something special brewing at Oceanside,” Cooney said. “I was very impressed with how well both Sam and Will progressed and got the chance to play in college and now even professionally.”
Filling the shoes of Hartman wouldn’t be easy though. Grier has incredibly high expectations of his starting quarterbacks. Oceanside entered the summer with a three-man competition for the starting spot, which continued into the fall as Grier searched for one to separate himself. The three traded off starting games, rotated quarters and even swapped possessions.
“It was kind of hard but I just tried to prove to my team every week that I could be the guy to step up and help us win games,” Cooney said. “We just kept working at it and started to develop chemistry and timing with my receivers. You could just feel it coming late in the season.”
Cooney completed 10 of 12 passes for 158 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 4 road win. One of the quarterbacks quit the team the following week. The other continued to receive limited snaps but the job was clearly Cooney’s moving forward. He completed 71 percent of his pass attempts for 531 yards and nine touchdowns over the next three weeks, all Oceanside wins.
“Sean did it the old fashioned way. He went out and earned it,” Grier said of the quarterback battle. “He never looked back. And not only his confidence level, but the level of the guys around him grew. They believed in him as their quarterback.”
He went five straight games, more than 60 pass attempts, without an interception through the middle of the season. Production increased alongside opportunity. He threw for more than 1,300 yards and scored 19 touchdowns through the final seven weeks of the season. He completed 67 percent of his attempts during that stretch.
MaxPreps’ database includes stats for more than 170 quarterbacks statewide. Cooney’s 67 percent completion rate would’ve ranked fifth in the entire state, second in AA. Only one quarterback in the state threw for more total yards last season with fewer attempts than Cooney.
“Sean opens everything up,” Williams said. “We had the flow going immediately once we both go out there. And with Coach Grier calling the plays, you just can’t guard everything.”
Both Williams and Cooney expect their production to increase this season now as full-time starters from the opening week. Having spent the past year together, including the offseason, spring and summer, both say chemistry is much stronger within this year’s offense compared to last season.
Results in an ultra competitive summer seven-on-seven circuit would suggest they’re right. Oceanside reached the semifinals, losing by two points to AAAAA Clover, in the Palmetto State Showdown hosted by Byrnes this summer.
“Somebody was joking that we must’ve been there for a spelling bee when they saw us get off the bus,” Cooney said. “Then we go out there and bust a couple of AAAAA schools, just kill some teams, make some noise. That’s the best part.”
Oceanside reached the semifinals of the Charleston Southern tournament as well, going undefeated in pool play before losing by one point to AAAA Lower Richland. The Landsharks later took fifth against some of North and South Carolina’s best teams in Cam Newton’s annual 7V7 tournament in Charlotte, again going undefeated in pool play on way to eight straight wins and a No. 1 seed.
“I know it’s just seven-on-seven but that’s the only competition we could have and Sean and Keegan were a huge part of our success,” Grier said. “To see them do it so consistently all summer, and against such quality competition, I’m just excited to see what it looks like for real this season.”
Grier is well versed in college recruiting. He’s sent 44 of his players to college over the past seven years. He considers Williams “at the very minimum a Group of 5 kind of guy” in college. He says Cooney is “no question, at minimum, an FCS scholarship guy.” The issue, he thinks, is the limited body of work. That’ll surely change this season but the collective hope is that it’s not too late for recruiters to take notice.
Cooney spent the summer camping with several Ivy League schools, which he says would be a “dream scenario” although he’s not yet ruling out other opportunities. Several have showed interest but seem to be cautiously waiting to see more on tape. There’s a certain burden following quarterbacks like Will Grier or Sam Hartman, a heightened pressure to succeed as Grier's next project.
Williams has built his stock through the summer camp circuit as well. He was the fastest player at The Citadel’s prospect camp. More schools have begun to show interest in the 1,000-yard back with hands like a receiver. He bears the weight of his decisions. Not making it, to him, would mean everything — the transfer, the year sitting out, his attempt at traveling an alternative route — it all went for naught.
“These guys deserve everything that, I hope and believe, is coming their way,” Grier said. “Somebody is going to get a steal. They're so far under the radar right now but their film is so good. Just look at what they’ve done in a limited sample. And it’s only going to get better this year.”
Playing well and winning often solves, and could change, everything. Is there enough time left for what might be the best quarterback and running back duo in the state?