USC safety T.J. McDonald celebrates a fumble recovery against Utah last… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
USC safety T.J. McDonald offered up the name without prompting.
The Trojans had just concluded their first full-pads workout Saturday and McDonald, a returning team captain, was eager to describe a defense that showed off speed and aggressiveness during the scrimmage portion of practice.
"The Dark Side," McDonald said. "That's what we call ourselves."
The defense intercepted a pass by Matt Barkley, caused running back D.J. Morgan to fumble and broke up several pass plays with intimidating hits.
It was an encouraging sign for a team that features a star-studded offense and is expected to open the season ranked among the top 10.
"We're playing faster now," said Monte Kiffin, the Trojans' assistant head coach for defense.
USC's defense was a question mark last spring and was under fire the first half of the 2011 season after giving up 43 points in a loss to Arizona State and 41 the next week in a victory over Arizona.
The Trojans, however, finished strong. They held off Oregon for a 38-35 victory at Autzen Stadium and then dominated UCLA in a 50-0 season-ending victory.
USC ranked 45th among 120 major-college teams in scoring defense, 54th in total defense and 102nd against the pass.
"Obviously unacceptable," Coach Lane Kiffin said of the pass defense.
But Kiffin has been impressed with the defense through the first week of workouts, noting that it was playing harder and had "a good confidence."
McDonald, senior defensive ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard and junior cornerback Nickell Robey are the most experienced players for a unit that will feature three sophomore linebackers and several young defensive linemen.
Redshirt freshman quarterbacks Max Wittek and Cody Kessler both have impressed at times in the competition to win the spot as Barkley's backup.
Meantime, third-year sophomore Jesse Scroggins cannot seem to get started.
Scroggins sat out much of training camp and part of last season because of a thumb injury that required surgery. He was sidelined for the first two spring workouts because of a hip injury, and he spent Saturday's workout rolling across the turf as punishment for missing a weight-training session, Lane Kiffin said.
This is the second spring practice for Wittek and Kessler, who completed high school in December 2010 so they could get a head start on their college careers.
"It feels a lot better compared to a year ago," Wittek said. "I'm so much more confident and comfortable in the system.
"It was definitely the right choice, coming here early, because without that first spring I wouldn't be anywhere near where I am today."
Kessler echoed the sentiment.
"There's no comparison," he said. "You come back here and you have a whole season under your belt."
The Trojans are off this week and will not work out again until March 20. McDonald said the scheduling would serve the Trojans well because they were "able to play football, kind of get a feel of what we're doing, have a little break and come back knowing what we're getting into." Kiffin noted that the break would allow players to rest and return from minor injuries. His message about off-the-field behavior going into the break: "Just remind them, people have screwed up around the country; let's not be the ones that do it."