In preparation for the 2014 college football season, Saturday Down South takes a look at the X factor for every SEC team. Not only do these players have the opportunity to make major contributions for their respective squads, but they could also be the difference in a successful season or a losing season.

Today, we’re discussing the X factor for the Kentucky Wildcats.

X-Factor Series:

DE Za’Darius Smith

With the exception of the 2007 season, Kentucky football has struggled to be relevant in the SEC football world. In Mark Stoops’ first season as Kentucky’s head coach, the Wildcats struggled mightily, finishing with a 2-10 record and zero wins in the SEC.

Stoops is regarded as one of the most talented defensive minds in college football, so one would believe that the foundation to Kentucky’s success will be built through the defense. The Wildcats return eight starters from last year’s defense, including two studs on the defensive line: Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith.  Both Dupree and Smith decided to spurn this year’s NFL draft and return to school. Dupree, who is considered a “freak athlete” by Stoops and one of the team’s best players, anchors the defensive line.

However, it’ll be Smith’s performance in 2014 that’ll have a significant impact on the success of this year’s team. As a JUCO transfer, Smith impressed in his first season last year. He finished fourth on the team in tackles (59) and tallied six sacks. At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Smith is an intimidating presence on the line and his very disruptive for opposing offensive linemen. So you wouldn’t know it that he didn’t start playing football until his senior year in high school.

Despite just a few years of competitive football experience, Smith is making great strides as he approaches his second and final year in the SEC.

“Z put a lot of faith and confidence in us and what we were doing, so I’m very proud of the fact that he’s come a long way,” Stoops said at SEC Media Days.. “He’s doing everything right. He’s going to graduate. He’s doing well in school, and he’s becoming a great player.

RELATED: 2014 SEC Top 100 Countdown: No. 90 Za’Darius Smith, Kentucky

Smith is certainly a raw talent, but after a full year in Stoops’ program, the head coach believes he’ll make a big jump this season.

“We always knew he was very talented. He did some very good things a year ago, but I think you’re going to see some very big things from him this year.”

Potentially having two major impact players in Smith and Dupree on the defensive line would be a big help to a Kentucky program that’s looking to turn things around. The SEC is a line of scrimmage league and if Smith progresses as expected, the duo of he and Dupree will give Kentucky an advantage at the most important area in many of their games this year.