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Arizona center Nathan Eldridge should be one of the Wildcats' most improved - and most valuable - players this year.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

Continuing our countdown of the 17 most valuable Arizona Wildcats of 2017.

First, some quick reminders:

“Most valuable” does not necessarily mean “best.” Rather, we’re defining it as the contributions and traits that most influence winning football. They include talent, leadership and projected role and production.

Newcomers were not eligible for the list. Although many might become major contributors this year, especially on defense, their roles are just too difficult to predict in June.

NO. 6: C NATHAN ELDRIDGE

Ht/Wt/Yr: 6-3, 290, redshirt sophomore

Comment: Eldridge ranking this high on a projected MVP list would have been inconceivable a year ago. But a tragic set of circumstances forever altered his career path.

Eldridge entered last year’s training camp as a projected backup. But just days into camp, senior center Zach Hemmila passed away in his sleep (It was later determined that Hemmila, 22, died from a toxic combination of prescription drugs.)

Someone had to step up and start at center. That someone was Eldridge, who had redshirted the previous year, as most incoming offensive linemen do.

Eldridge probably wasn’t completely ready, but he had no choice and did his best. The offensive line contributed heavily to the Wildcats’ overall offensive struggles last season, and Eldridge – as the traffic-directing pivot – bore some of the blame.

But there’s no question Eldridge was a better player in Game 12 than Game 1; see Arizona’s school-record 511 rushing yards in the Territorial Cup. (The UA also ended up leading the Pac-12 in rushing, at 235 yards per game.)

With a full season to learn from – and a full offseason to prepare – Eldridge should be one of the Wildcats’ most improved players this year. He and OL coach Jim Michalczik discussed the areas where Eldridge has advanced the most back in March. They include reading defenses, being more balanced and carrying himself with more confidence.

Eldridge will be in a completely different and better place mentally when this season gets underway. Instead of trying to play catchup and fit in with a mostly veteran group, he’s one of those veterans now.

Eldridge has the work ethic, sturdy frame and athletic background to become a top college center. He wrestled in high school, in addition to playing football. The skills learned on the mat often translate to football’s trenches.

If Eldridge indeed makes a leap this season – and Arizona’s offensive line is one of the team’s biggest strengths, which it should be – it stands to reason he will be one of the Wildcats’ most valuable performers.

THE 17 MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2017