Of all the high school football stars that put pen to paper and signed with the Hokies on December 18, no one has a story like Wilfried Pene's.
Pene came to the United States in 2018 from Tours, France, a town about two hours outside of Paris. The 16-year-old packed up his things, left his family, and set out to follow his dream of playing American football. He landed at a prep school in Connecticut, St. Thomas More.
"I chose to come to the U.S. because I just fell in love with football," Pene said with the help of a translator. " I saw football when I was 16 years old, and I loved it. When I played in my first game in France I said, 'yes, I love this sport. I need to play it at a high level.'"
Pene, a 6'3" 235lbs. tight end, was an under the radar recruit from the start. In fact, the Hokies were the only major program that extended a scholarship. Pene received other offers from Central Michigan, Rhode Island, and Monmouth. The 247Sports Composite ranks him as a 3-star (0.8206), and he was selected to the All-New England Team both years he played.
Pene landed at St. Thomas More with an assist from the staff at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. Pene initially sent his limited film to the latter, but St. Frances doesn't have a foreign exchange program. However, they helped put him in touch with St. Thomas More.
Fast forward a year, and Pene began to develop into a legitimate weapon not only on offense, but as a defensive end. His coach his senior season, Jason Manson, was a bit skeptical of this French foreign exchange student who could spark the offense. Then he saw Pene show up to summer practices.
"He's a relentless worker, and a super competitive kid," said Manson. "In his mind, there's no limitations on what he can do. He wanted to play every position all of the time."
There was a fear in Manson's mind that implementing a new system would be difficult for Pene, a young man who had already just taught himself English the year before.
"I heard he was big and athletic, so I thought defensive end would be a better position for him, just because it's a bit easier to grasp the instincts at that position," said Manson. "But we came in this fall, and we started up a new offense. So, we sent him some PowerPoint slides because he was still in France, and I really thought he'd struggle learning a new system because it was a little more advanced than what they did before. But he came in, I want to say two days late into camp, he didn't miss a beat. He understood everything we were talking about. So, I was really shocked at how he learned it really all on his own."
Watch this touchdown reception and the great awareness Pene demonstrated. The quarterback was flushed out of the pocket. Pene broke off his out route and found the open space within the QB's line of sight. Many receivers in that scenario might simply continue their route or cut upfield. Pene did a nice job of feeling where the defense was, and to use a soccer reference, made a run into open space against their grain.
The New England region isn't a hotbed for talent, and is a recruiting trail less traveled. Pene noted he was frustrated by the lack of attention and exposure during the recruitment process.
"When we lined up against teams like St. Frances and National Christian Academy, he was really productive," said Manson. "So, he thought that since those guys he was going up against had big-time offers and he was productive, that he should be getting some big-time love. Virginia Tech was the first big school to really pull the trigger. Some other big ones had looked but never really pulled the trigger."
Pene was spotted on the Hokies' radar by running backs coach Adam Lechtenberg and special teams / tight ends coach James Shibest. Lechtenburg coached with Manson at Central Connecticut State in 2010, and the two have kept in touch since. Lechtenberg was impressed with what he saw on film and took Shibest with him to Baltimore to see Pene play against St. Frances Academy.
"I spoke with the tight ends coach and the head coach," said Pene. "They seem like good guys and good coaches who love to coach. So after speaking with some players I decided to sign."
Pene first heard about Virginia Tech while watching college football videos on YouTube. He'd watch old games to understand the vibe of college football.
Beyond his aggressiveness and athleticism, Tech's coaches might have been drawn to Pene because of his willingness to block on the outside. The Hokies' offense often requires skill players to block screens and sweeps on the perimeter.
Pene also does a great job of high-pointing the football and catching with strong hands. This limits drops and puts him in a better position to tuck and run after the catch.
Pene is a true project prospect. He has the raw athleticism to play at the Power Five level, and enters into a great situation in which he is not expected to contribute right away. Although his impact may not be seen on the field for a few years, Pene is an embodiment of everything the "Hard. Smart. Tough." mantra represents. He's shown how much all of this means to him on and off the field in a way that not many teenage kids would even dream of.
"When I saw how he had learned the offense on his own and he practiced, I knew we had something special," said Manson.
"That dude's a little different."