2014 UPS football season preview: Will Mirande and Loggers defense take significant step forward?

If pressed to list his favorite things about college life, Max Mirande’s order would look something like this:

The first two make perfect sense: Mirande, a senior from Klamath Falls, Oregon, is a starting linebacker for the University of Puget Sound football team. And like his father, Raul, he wants to someday practice medicine.

The third one is the most interesting. Earthquakes are not what really interest Mirande. Bus quakes do.

“Last year when we got our first win in California, we came home at 1 a.m. and there were 200 students in the streets,” Mirande said. “They swarmed the bus.”

And what would Mirande expect to happen if the Loggers won two games this season — including their season opener Saturday against Claremont- Mudd-Scripps at Baker Stadium in Tacoma?

“Riots in the streets?” he said with a chuckle. “Everyone wants us to be good. Everyone is waiting to celebrate with us.”

The first step to winning more games is staying healthy, especially in two areas — along the offensive line and on the entire defense.

Coach Jeff Thomas said he thinks both of those groups have been fortified. He now has 10 offensive linemen he said he feels are ready for any game situations. And every single healthy defense starter has started at least one game in his career.

But 2013 was largely a mix-and-match affair on defense. Defensive end Doug Owusu (leg) and outside linebacker Matt Gilbert (shoulder) — arguably the team’s most talented player — were lost before or during preseason camp.

During the season, safety Jake Wuesthoff (neck), inside linebacker Austin Moore (hip), defensive end Jeremy Perkovich (elbow) and cornerback Roy Fuchigami (multiple injuries) missed at least one .

Thankfully, Mirande — the team’s overall leading tackler the past two seasons with 132 tackles — did play all nine games, giving Thomas and his staff a steady presence to build their game plan around.

“It’s been his stability both on and off the field,” Thomas said. “Quite frankly, he’s been a catapult for the program. We’ve been fortunate he has not had injuries.”

Last season, he registered 65 tackles playing in two spots — at inside linebacker when the Loggers went to a “3-3 stack” defense, and at outside linebacker when they played their more traditional 3-4 base defense.

He also led the squad in tackles for loss (61/2), sacks (three) and forced fumbles (two).

Even with all of the moving parts, the UPS defense did show marked improvement in giving up 482.6 yards per game. That was more than 75 yards fewer per game than what the Loggers surrendered in 2012.

Thomas expects that unit under new defensive coordinator Jeff Ramsey to take anotherstep forward this season.

“We have made the jump to being a much more athletic defense,” Thomas said. “Our team speed is significantly higher than it was a year ago. And with that speed, our number of broken tackles should diminish as well.”

Mirande is both excited and optimistic this is the season UPS puts it all together and makes a push to the middle of the pack in the Northwest Conference.

“We’ve done a great job of keeping guys healthy, especially during camp,” Mirande said. “I think that is a positive thing. I try and see the positives in everything, and people not getting hurt is a good start.”