NEWTON, Mass. -- The way Boston College likes to play defense, its linebackers have always been important. But with some weakness in the front four this season, they've become even more so.
"In how we have always played, the linebackers are crucial," third-year head coach, and longtime defensive coordinator before that, Frank Spaziani said. "They're usually, week in and week out, our most productive players."
According to the BC coaching staff's grading system, Spaziani said, "Usually the top four guys, two of them are linebackers."
"They're important," he said.
During a 2-7 season, BC's first losing season since 1998, the linebackers' play has been a bright spot.
"Steele has gotten better," Spaziani said of sophomore Steele Divitto. "It's a new position for him, [and] he's gotten better. I think he's shown that he can produce at this level."
Divitto, who has started every game at strongside linebacker, is third on the team with 50 tackles in 2011 and tied for first with two sacks.
"Obviously the 'Boy Wonder' in the middle never ceases to amaze me," Spaziani said, using one of his favorite nicknames for Luke Kuechly. "[Kevin Pierre-Louis], although he's been injured, is a big league player and has gotten better understanding what's going on."
Middle linebacker Kuechly leads the team, and the country, in tackles with 150 (more than BC's next two tacklers combined). Weakside linebacker Pierre-Louis is second on the team with 65, despite playing in only seven games due to injury.
"Now we've got Duggan," the coach said, referring to true freshman Sean Duggan. "We like him. But he's a puppy, and I'm not sure what kind of dog he is yet: poodle, St. Bernard, German Shepherd, pit bull. We're not sure what he is. He's a little puppy we got from the pound. He's nice; he nips you."
Duggan, who started the past two games in place of Pierre-Louis, has piled up 28 tackles, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and one fumble recovery in six games. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder is a product of St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, the same school that produced Kuechly, and the alma mater of former BC and current NC State coach Tom O'Brien.
The puppy has taken his cues from the big dogs this season.
"It's great," he said of having players such as Kuechly and Pierre-Louis to observe. "You just try and learn as much as you can from them. They're just great guys to role model yourself after."
And although he's just a sophomore, Divitto is already doing his best to embrace a leadership role. That means he's modeling himself after the Boy Wonder, too.
"Luke knows the defense in and out," Divitto said. "I've done my best to know everybody's position in and out, especially when you have some young guys in the secondary or guys who have moved their positions. For me to be able to turn around to [true freshman strong safety] Spenser [Rositano] and say, 'You've got this. Watch out for this,' that's something that we pride ourselves on.
"We try to be the leaders of the defense," he said. "Even in practice, coach McGovern says all the time, 'You guys gotta bring the energy. You guys gotta get everyone else going.'"
Kuechly has noticed an increase in confidence in Divitto and the subsequent increase in the sophomore's ability to help the younger players on BC's defense.
"It's like, 'Good job, Steele, that's the way to step up and help the young guys know where to be,'" Kuechly said.
This season is the first losing season Divitto has ever been a part of. Even in pee wee football, he said, his team was in the national championship. So it's been an entirely new, and entirely unenjoyable, experience for the Ridgefield, Conn., native and Don Bosco Prep product.
But he hasn't let the losing discourage him.
"When you really build in life are the times that you're down and you pick yourself up," he said. "That's when you really look back and reflect, and you just come out with a whole 'nother fire about yourself.
"You can't dwell on it; you can't say, 'Oh, shucks,' or put your head down, because that's what losers do, to be honest," he said. "You can talk about potential all you want -- we have the potential to be an unbelievable ballclub -- but you need that motivation, and this season's gotta motivate everybody."
The Eagles have only pride to play for in the rest of 2011. But if their showing this season is a true predictor of future performance, the Eagles' linebackers, all of whom could be back in 2012 (Kuechly, a junior projected as a first-round pick, might be tempted to enter the NFL draft), will serve as an important part of the team's foundation going forward.
And if the Eagles are fortunate enough to find themselves back in a bowl game in '12, it's a safe bet that their 'backers will have had a lot to do with it.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.