Bluffton football coach Ken Cribb couldn't help but eavesdrop on a discussion between two of his players in the Bobcats locker room last month.
The topic, Cribb recalled, was offensive schemes -- particularly the pistol formation the Bobcats employ.
"He said that when he became a coach he was planning on running the same kind of offense," Cribb said. "That was as big of a compliment as a coach can ever get."
The player doing all the talking was Cribb's protègè, senior quarterback C.J. Frazier, who under his coach's tutelage has developed into not only the best signal-caller in Bluffton's young history but also into one of the state's premier passers.
Never miss a local story.
"As far as quarterbacks, C.J. is the best I've had," said Cribb, recalling 25 years of coaching experience. "He knows the game. It's just amazing to watch him work."
Three years after first taking the reins in what was then a run-first offense, Frazier will play in what could be his final Bluffton football game tonight when the Bobcats travel to South Florence for the first round of the Class 4-A playoffs.
It's a career that -- despite 31 victories, more than 7,000 yards and 101 touchdown passes -- almost never happened. At least not at Bluffton.
A SHAKY START
Frazier couldn't believe it. No one on the Bluffton football team could.
Coach Jeremy West was leaving after three seasons with the program. He did so as Frazier -- then a sophomore -- was coming up from the junior varsity squad, preparing to run the coach's spread offense.
In came Cribb, who had left his post as offensive coordinator at Fort Dorchester. He arrived at Bluffton with the double-wing offense in hand, something Frazier initially didn't want to run.
"It was real frustrating for me, just like the rest of the team, because it was a big surprise to us that Coach West was (leaving)," Frazier said. "We were all excited for the next season, regardless of who the next coach was going to be. We thought we were going to be pretty good with the talent we had coming back.
"I knew we were going to run the spread with Coach West, so when Coach Cribb came and we were going to run the double-wing, it upset me a little bit."
So Frazier started to explore other options around the state. He won't say what schools he considered, though he admitted none were located in Beaufort County. But as he began to search, Cribb implored him to go through spring practices before making a decision.
That's when everything changed.
"I definitely (looked around) before I got to really meet Coach Cribb and find out how good of a person he is and that he really is a special coach," Frazier said. "There's not many coaches in the world like him."
The quarterback decided to stick around and eventually won the starting job. That was, until he broke his collarbone in the Bobcats' scrimmage against Glynn Academy (Ga.), forcing him to miss the first four games of the season.
The Bobcats, behind converted linebacker Corey Stoner, raced to a 4-0 record before traveling to Wade Hampton. But with the Bobcats down by double digits, Frazier came in from the bullpen for his first action of the season and went on to rally Bluffton to a 30-18 victory.
The rest was history. Frazier started the rest of the way and led Bluffton to a 12-2 record, the Region 7-AAA championship and a berth in the Lower State semifinals.
But he and Cribb were only getting started.
JUST PLAYING CATCH
The common assumption is quarterbacks in a run-oriented offense usually can't throw. That was some of the criticism Frazier faced entering his junior season.
The quarterback was determined to change that. The Bobcats knew they had weapons at their disposal entering their final year in Class 3-A, and planned on utilizing them to their utmost capabilities.
Out with the double-wing, in with the pistol.
Frazier moved seven yards behind his offensive line, his wingbacks three yards behind him. The double-wing was still there in theory, but instead of the option, the Bobcats used more quick passes to take advantage of their athletic skill players.
"We're really good at just playing catch," Frazier said. "We just get the ball out there, they catch it. And it's to our advantage. Coach Cribb is going to tailor the offense to what we have, he's smart enough to do that."
What followed was an offensive explosion. The Bobcats scored a state-record 814 points last season during a 14-1 run to the state championship game and did so with Frazier leading the state in touchdown passes.
He finished with a whopping 3,577 yards, 56 touchdown strikes and only eight interceptions while completing 58 percent (202-349) of his passes.
"He pretty much lit it up his junior year," Cribb said. "He changed his dedication to the game and mentally changed me as a coach."
The offense was expected to slow down this season, as guys such as Eric Boyles, Dimitri Lowry and Zachary Scott left the program while the Bobcats also transitioned into Class 4-A.
But it's still the same old Bluffton. Frazier has led the Bobcats to a 10-1 record while throwing for 2,437 yards and 33 touchdowns. While the numbers aren't as eye-popping, the North-South All-Star Game selection says he is more impressed with this season than the last. Much of that has to do with the more vocal approach he has taken in the huddle and on the sideline.
"I'm a lot happier with my performance this year," he said. "I feel like I'm doing a good job of leading the team and that's the most important thing. As long as I continue to lead the team each day and make sure that everybody has somebody they can look up to or come to when they have questions, then I'm doing the best I can for our team.
"I don't really care about the numbers or anything like that because you never know how the game goes."
THE BEST I'VE SEEN HIM
The state championship eluded Frazier and the Bobcats a season ago against South Pointe. An inaugural Region 8-AAAA title slipped away, too, a week ago against Summerville.
None of that had to do with Frazier, though. Just ask Cribb.
"He rose to a different level Friday night," he said. "Sitting in the pocket and delivering the balls he delivered, taking the punishment he took, it was as good a performance as I've seen from a quarterback at any level on television.
"He just sat in there, knew what he was looking for, they were coming and he stayed in there, delivered and got popped."
The Bobcats' offensive line wasn't at its best, surrendering eight sacks to the flying Green Wave defense. But Frazier still managed to rally Bluffton from a 21-0 deficit before coming up short, doing so thanks to 454 yards through the air.
"That's an enormous amount for an NFL quarterback," said Cribb. "They were bringing heat and they knew we were throwing every down. And he still delivered.
"He just has the knowledge and ability to deliver, the poise to sit in the pocket and the discipline and toughness to take the hits."
Three years together and the pupil still manages to surprise the teacher. That's the kind of relationship Cribb and Frazier have.
That relationship may see this latest chapter close tonight against the 7-4 Bruins, next week against nationally-ranked Goose Creek or in a month at the state championship game.
Either way, it's a special ride -- and a special career -- that Frazier won't soon forget.
"I'm happy I made the right decision (to stay)," he said. "It was a long process, but as long as you follow good people you'll be all right. ... I'm happy I got to stay my four years with the people that I've always grown up with.
"I can truly say that these guys are my brothers."
A look at quarterback C.J. Frazier, who begins the final stretch run of an illustrious career with Bluffton tonight at South Florence
C.J. Frazier, senior quarterback
5-foot-11, 185 pounds
Career stats: 414 of 709 passing (58.4 percent), 7,109 yards, 101 TD, 16 INT
Other numbers: Has started 35 consecutive games for Bluffton, leading the Bobcats to a 31-4 record in that span ... led the state with 56 touchdown passes in 2011 ... helped Bluffton score a state-record 814 points that season ... Has also rushed for five touchdowns in his career.
Accolades: 2012 North-South All-Star Game selection, 2011 Island Packet/Beaufort Gazette Offensive Player of the Year, 2011 High School Sports Report Class 3-A Player of the Year, 2011 team MVP, 2011 Region 7-AAA all-region selection.
TONIGHT'S PLAYOFF GAME
Bluffton (10-1) at South Florence (7-4), 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: First meeting
The skinny: Bluffton coach Ken Cribb makes his return to South Florence, where he coached from 2001-2006 while leading the Bruins to a pair of playoff appearances. The Bobcats are 2-0 in road playoff games under Cribb, including a win in last year's Class 3-A Lower State final against Myrtle Beach. Bluffton missed out on a home playoff game this year after falling at Summerville last week, 31-22.
Players to watch: Bobcats running back Tykeem Major, who leads Bluffton with 729 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, is probable for tonight despite leaving early against Summerville last week after sustaining a hip pointer. Linebacker Rogan Ferguson, who leads the team with 107 tackles, will miss the game due to a concussion. Bruins TE/DE Fabian Jefferson, a Shrine Bowl selection, leads the team with 422 receiving yards and six touchdowns while recording 15 sacks on defense.
Keys to the game: Bluffton needs to keep quarterback C.J. Frazier upright against the Bruins, who are expected to blitz heavily against the Bobcats' offensive line, which struggled last week against Summerville by surrendering eight sacks. A heavy dose of Major at tailback and Frazier through the air should lead to a promising night for Bluffton.