NEWTON, Mass. -- They used to laugh at him.
Josh Keyes had so much adrenaline on the football field, he didn’t know what to do with it all.
“He just had so much energy, we used to call him the Tasmanian Devil,” fellow linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis said after practice Wednesday. “Because he’s flying around but he’s in all the wrong spots.”
Now a junior, Keyes is no longer a whirling dervish.
“Now he’s flying around and he’s in the right spots, making plays,” Pierre-Louis said. “I’m really proud of him.”
As the Eagles prepare to host No. 8 Florida State on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN2), Keyes leads the team and is tied for 10th in the ACC in sacks with 2.5.
The 6-foot-2, 216-pound backup strongside linebacker had appeared in 19 games his first two seasons, totaling 28 tackles. With help from defensive coordinator Don Brown and Pierre-Louis, whom Keyes calls a mentor, he’s begun to harness some of his energy and convert it into plays on the field.
“The defense is playing very well, we’re playing as a team,” Keyes said. “We’re getting after the ball and everything. So it’s going pretty well.”
Playing running back and corner in Chatham Central High School in upstate New York, Keyes was named New York State Class C Player of the Year after rushing for 1,721 yards and 21 touchdowns and making 79 tackles and four interceptions as a senior. He looked at BC, Connecticut, Syracuse and Temple in the recruiting process.
“I was looking at Syracuse because I’m from upstate New York, but BC was always my top school,” he said.
Keyes said he fell in love with the campus on his official visit, and he hasn’t looked back since committing.
He admitted that switching positions was tough at first.
“I played a pretty physical role as a running back, so coming in and playing safety wasn’t really a challenge because I have a bigger body for a safety and I can hit and everything,” he said. “The first few days of linebacker were pretty tough, but after that it was fine. I put on some weight over the summer and now it’s fine.”
BC coach Steve Addazio has been impressed by the flashes Keyes has shown so far this season.
“He’s an explosive guy, like KPL,” he said. “Those two guys are really explosive and you notice those are guys that can make plays for us. They can close the distance really quickly, that’s why you can get them involved in blitzes that can sack the quarterback. They have that ability. Call it quick-twitch. They hit a pass-rush move and they can beat you inside really quick.
“I think he’s very suited to play where he’s playing. I think he’s more suited to play there than in the back end because he’s a physical guy and he’s got that explosiveness. I think he’s in a perfect spot for him, as a nickel, as a SAM [strongside linebacker]. Those kind of guys that are hybrid guys, who can cover but can also come off the edge.”
Pierre-Louis, the starter at the SAM position, sees a lot of progress from his backup.
“He’s grown a lot. He’s come a long way, honestly,” he said. “Pretty much I just told him to slow down. And once he started slowing down, he started making plays out there. I keep telling him every day, if he’s able to control his body he’ll be the best player on the team, hands down.
“And I mean that from the bottom of my heart. If he was able to slow down, keep the game where he needs it to be, he’s so athletic. Most athletic guy on the team. He just doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Middle linebacker Steele Divitto called Keyes “a dynamic player.”
“He’s a great athlete and he competes his tail off,” he said. “Football means a lot to him too. He’s always willing to throw it on the line, and that’s something you really want.”
Addazio and Brown have installed an aggressive philosophy on defense, bringing pressure from all levels including the linebacker corps. After hitting a low of six sacks in 2012, change was certainly needed.
Through three games, the Eagles already have eight sacks. Keyes has more than a quarter of that total in a limited role.
“[He’s] making plays,” Addazio said. “Now, he makes mistakes too and it’s experience. But you can put him in a situation and he can make a play. He’s made plays for us. I’d like to get [Pierre-Louis and Keyes] both on the field, to be honest with you.”
Keyes has been having fun harassing quarterbacks.
“I love rushing the passer,” he said. “Speed is one of my things. When I rush the passer, it’s a great feeling. It’s something that I can do well and I really enjoy it.”
Chances are that if Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston sees Keyes sprinting around the end of the line on Saturday, a blur of maroon and gold, he won’t be laughing.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.