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Transfers Are the Key at Cal’s Critical Outside Linebacker Spot

That big-play position may be the biggest preseason question on the Golden Bears' defense

Day 3 of Cal's preseason football camp on Sunday featured the first day of work with shoulder pads, so the things took a step up physically. 

The highlight play of the session was a remarkable catch by Tommy Chistakos, who went horizontal and stretched his arms as far as he could to make a finger-tip grab of a Jack Plummer pass.

Nonetheless, much of the focus in the early part of camp is on three transfers who play the outside linebacker position -- two from other Pac-12 schools and a third from junior college by way of the Mountain West Conference.

Outside linebackers are in the best position to make big plays in Cal's defensive scheme.  Cal defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Peter Sirmon used a baseball analogy to describe the outside linebackers' penchant for big plays.

"They hit triples and home runs," said Sirmon in the video atop the story. "Inside linebackers, we're singles and doubles."

Cameron Goode had 36 tackles for losses as an outside linebacker in his Cal career, and Marqez Bimage had 7.5 tackles for losses in his one season at outside linebacker for the Bears in 2021.

However, those two players are gone, leaving a big gap at a key position, and creating the biggest question on what seems to be an otherwise solid defense.

Braxten Croteau started six games last season and is expected to occupy one starting outside linebacker spot, although Cal would like him to get more than 1.5 tackles for loss he has in his Cal career so far.

But the three transfers who figure to get playing time -- and possibly start -- at the other outside linebacker spot are Utah transfer Xavier Carlton, UCLA transfer Odua Isobor and Henry Ikahihifo, who started his college career at Nevada and was at College of the Canyons last season.

Here is what Sirmon said about each:

Xavier Carlton

"He has continued to really impress us. He's all of 6-6, 6-7, but he does a great job of setting edges. He's a first-, second- and third-down player. He could play end, he could play a little 4-technique (defensive end in a 3-4 defense) or standup outside linebacker. He's very versatile in those situations."

Note: Carlton played in 11 games, including two starts, for Utah last season and contributed 4.0 tackles for losses.

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Odua Isibor

"Very Strong at the point of attack. He has extensive background in the conference. But he's going to bring pass-rush ability and ability to be very effective in the run game."

Note: Isibor is a sixth-year player who played in 42 games at UCLA with 14 starts. He participated in all 12 contests with two starts in 2021 and recorded 4.5 tackles for loss.

Henry Ikahihifo

"Henry is very explosive and very strong. He's going to be a very similar to how Braxten can play."

Note: Ikahihifo is still new to the position. He played tight end for two seasons at Nevada before being switched to defensive end at College of the Canyons, collecting 5.5 sacks while playing in 10 games.

Sirmon had this to say about Croteau:

"He can do it all. He plays with unbelievable effort. He's a very hard out on single block on the tight end. Not many guys in the conference are going to handle him consistently."

Sirmon on potential pass rushers:

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Cover photo of Odua Isibor is by Joe Nicholson, USA TODAY Sports

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