Veilleux confident ahead of start on one of college football’s biggest stages
The reality of chasing big football dreams in Canada is that young players usually have to invent their own paths to greatness.
The 21-year-old Ottawa native who will start at quarterback for the Pitt Panthers when they face Notre Dame on Saturday is no exception.
Christian Veilleux is the first person in his family ever to play football. His love for the game was instilled early, spending childhood afternoons on the couch watching games with his father, Martin.
Martin had an office adorned with pictures of Peyton Manning, so he was hardly disappointed when his son was moved from left tackle to quarterback in his second season and immediately showed instincts for the game’s most important position.
“As a young kid, even as a baby, we would watch football on TV,” Martin said. “I joke that I brainwashed him as a child because I forced him to watch football all Sunday … it definitely played a role in his love of the game.
“From the get-go he was all in on football. We put him in skating, but he said, ‘I don’t want to play hockey … football is the game.’”
Martin and his wife, Lynn, will be among the 77,000-plus who will pack Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, when Veilleux will lead his team against the Fighting Irish on one of the most iconic stages in all of college football.
It is just the third NCAA start for Veilleux, a redshirt sophomore who transferred from Penn State this past off-season and took over the starting job at Pitt three weeks ago with the Panthers off to a 1-4 start.
An upset win over Louisville and a close loss to Wake Forest later, he’s bringing a businesslike approach to South Bend, Ind., this weekend.
“It’s just another game on the schedule but it’s also a great opportunity and an even greater challenge,” said Veilleux this week. “I feel like once you get put in those environments you either rise to the occasion or you fall, and I feel like the environment itself will just bring the best out of me and my teammates.”
In Veilleux’s first start against then-No. 18 ranked Louisville, he completed 12 of 26 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception. He followed that up in his second start by completing 28 of 45 for 302 yards and two touchdowns against Wake Forest in a game the Panthers led until 33 seconds remained.
“I think [Notre Dame] is going to be a lot of fun and I’m definitely going to soak it all in for sure,” Veilleux said. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure. The pressure for me is to be a starting quarterback. I didn’t leave home when I was a kid to sit on the bench my whole college career. The real pressure was to get myself into a situation where I could be the guy. Now that that’s accomplished, I’ve just got to go out there and be calm, have fun and play ball just like I did when I was 12, 13 and 14 … I do believe I’m going to rise to the occasion.”
Veilleux is the first Canadian to start at quarterback for a Power Five conference school since another Ottawa native, Jesse Palmer, started for Florida in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While Veilleux wasn’t born by the time Palmer’s college career ended in 2000, he did have another role model in former UBC and CFL quarterback Michael O’Connor who trained at the same Gridiron Academy facility in Ottawa, run by former University of Ottawa player Victor Tedondo.
O’Connor went from Ottawa to Florida’s IMG Academy, and then to Penn State before transferring to the University of British Columbia. He led the Thunderbirds to a national championship and went on to play in the CFL.
While his NFL experience was limited to a mini-camp invite with the Seattle Seahawks, witnessing his journey and getting to know O’Connor was a huge influence on Veilleux, who quickly became focused on the path he would have to take to become an NFL quarterback.
“Michael O’Connor definitely paved the way for me,” said Veilleux. “When he was going through the whole process and he was at Penn State, I had just joined Gridiron Academy and that was the example I would look up to. Victor would always engrain in my mind ‘You have to be better than Michael, you have to do more than Michael did.’ I feel like I took that to heart, and it gave me the motivation to do what I’ve done and what I hope and wish to accomplish.”
That meant travelling with Tedondo to 7-on-7 camps in the U.S. where he would go head-to head with some of the best young quarterback talent in America, including USC’s Caleb Williams, a Heisman Trophy winner and projected No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.
“He was really competitive, that’s the first thing I noticed. He had the right mindset … he dreamed big,” O’Connor said of Veilleux. “I’m just happy to say I’m a part of his journey. Man, I’m looking forward to seeing him go out at Notre Dame. It’s really special to see these kids from Canada get these opportunities.”
The role O’Connor played in Veilleux’s story is a perfect illustration of the manner in which young Canadian football players are able to inspire those who follow them.
It’s also the primary reason more and more Canadians are hitting the elite ranks of college football and the NFL, with 27 Canadian players having been on active NFL rosters this season alone.
“Christian is an NFL quarterback. Christian will play in the NFL, he’ll get an opportunity,” said Donovan Dooley, owner of Quarterback University in Detroit, one of the top quarterback development programs in the U.S., who has worked with Veilleux since he was 12 years old.
“What Christian does with that is on Christian. He has the traits and the brain talent. The more pocket reps he gets, the better and more confident he’s going to get.”
That confidence has been building ever since a month short of his 16th birthday when Veilleux made the move to the U.S., attending high school in Buffalo and then later Maryland.
“When he excelled there on and off the field, that’s when I started thinking this might happen,” said Martin. “That’s what really opened my eyes. I always tried to be the humbling guy and tell him one step at a time and trust the process.”
Veilleux had no shortage of options by the time he was ready to choose a college path, choosing Penn State in part because the Nittany Lions had four other Canadian players, including Ottawa natives Jonathan Sutherland and Jesse Luketa.
By his second season, however, Veilleux had been passed on the depth chart by Drew Allar, a five-star recruit and one of the highest-rated high school players in the country.
Veilleux could see the writing on the wall by the end of last season. He decided to enter the NCAA’s transfer portal and landed at Pitt, the school that produced Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino and current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett.
“Once [Allar] took the reins, a guy a year younger than me, I felt like if I was going to have a shot it would have to be somewhere else,” said Veilleux. “I felt like I had to take my talents somewhere, take a chance and bet on myself. [Pitt] just felt right, felt like the right place to be. I felt like the system was something I could thrive in and was made for a quarterback like myself.
“It’s very pro-style. I’m not the fastest guy but I am athletic. But at the end of the day I want to drop back and throw the ball.”
Veilleux’s breakthrough this season is no surprise to those who’ve witnessed his journey. Tedondo recalls the 10-year-old quarterback who first showed up at Gridiron Academy, dreams and goals in hand.
“Christian is exactly where he’s supposed to be,” said Tedondo. “He’s extremely athletic and confident and believes in himself. Christian truly believes he can walk into any program in the country and be a starter. At that level you need that.”
All those practices and workouts, the trips to the U.S. for camps and high school, and the patience to see it through is coming to fruition.
“I’m really excited for Christian this weekend,” said Palmer, who is now an ESPN college football analyst. “He’s so talented and has been patient and waited for his chance. This is such a great opportunity for him against an excellent defence on a big stage.”
Veilleux’s time has arrived