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Malick Meiga, Christian Veilleux among the Canadians making a major impact for Penn State

The Air Canada connection hooked up for a 67-yard touchdown last week in a 28-0 win over Rutgers. Penn State currently has six Canadians on its roster.

Penn State wide receiver Malick Meiga (80) scores a touchdown against Rutgers last week.
Penn State wide receiver Malick Meiga (80) scores a touchdown against Rutgers last week.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Malick Meiga had waited for this moment ever since he met Christian Veilleux two years ago and began training with him at the Gridiron Academy in their native Canada, especially when he learned that Veilleux would follow him across the border to play football at Penn State.

There the speedy wide receiver was last Saturday on the 50-yard line at Beaver Stadium, finding himself wide open and calling for Veilleux to throw him the football. The quarterback obliged and Meiga completed the most electrifying play in the Nittany Lions’ 28-0 win over Rutgers, gliding into the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown.

The Air Canada connection was the first of what Meiga, a redshirt freshman from the Montreal suburb of St. Jerome, Quebec, hopes will be many.

“Ever since we met, and ever since he committed to Penn State, that was a dream of ours to do this,” Meiga said Tuesday, “to come over and kind of do our things and represent Canada. So it’s pretty great that it just started. We hope that many more moments like these will come in the future.”

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Veilleux, a true freshman from Ottawa, Ontario, who came to Penn State from the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., made his college debut after replacing flu-stricken Sean Clifford late in the first quarter. He completed 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns.

In all, six Canadians are on the Penn State roster. Fifth-year senior Jonathan Sutherland of Ottawa, a converted safety making his first start at linebacker, had an interception Saturday, extending the Nittany Lions’ streak to 17 consecutive games of forcing at least one turnover.

Senior defensive end Jesse Luketa, who also calls Ottawa home, is sixth on the team with 48 tackles, is tied for third with six tackles for loss, and returned his only interception for a 16-yard touchdown against Ball State. Sophomore tight end Theo Johnson of Windsor, Ontario, leads the Nittany Lions’ tight ends with 19 receptions, one a touchdown. Freshman safety Frederik Lesieur, a walk-on from Montreal, hasn’t seen any playing time.

The 6-foot-4, 198-pound Meiga played his first college snaps earlier this month at Maryland and caught his first career pass, and had another catch against Michigan. While still raw, he possesses tremendous speed, a 4.3-second time in the 40-yard dash, according to head coach James Franklin.

Meiga loved soccer growing up, but once he started playing football in eighth grade, he was hooked. He started going to camps to improve his skills and said he decided then “I could make something out of football and play in the United States for Penn State and big schools like that.”

Two of the adjustments he would have to make would be learning how to play on the smaller American football fields, “where everything is way faster,” he said, and improving his English. Another issue was making sure coaches in the United States saw what he could do.

“You don’t have a lot of opportunities,” Meiga said. “You’ve got to do everything to come over to Penn State and do camps and stuff like that. Being from the United States, you already have the chance to be around the people. People are going to come to your games and see how you’re doing. But being from Canada, you just don’t have that type of opportunity.”

Franklin found him, and liked him.

“I remember going on the home visit, flew to Canada,” he said. “He and his brother had an apartment. The snow was like up to here and he was very appreciative of the opportunity to come to Penn State, and that hasn’t changed. He’s smart. He works hard. It’s very important to him. He’s a great teammate.”

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The entire Penn State organization, particularly the Canadian players, was delighted to see the performance from Veilleux, who enrolled at the university in January. Sutherland said he met Veilleux at the Gridiron Academy when he was “just a little young buck in the program.”

“He was always a worker,” he said. “He was always somebody who showed up to work. I remember him being willing and able to step up to any challenge. He was just a quiet kid at first.”

Once Veilleux arrived at Penn State, “I saw the work that he put in,” Sutherland said.

“I saw his determination, his motivation, his work ethic. Seeing that all translate to the game field is really inspiring. It was a really great thing to see. I’m really proud of Christian. His future’s really bright.”