Eagle eye for the ball: a Q&A with two of upstart Winslow’s defensive stars

Winslow Township football is 3-0 for the first time since 2010, fueled by a fast, aggressive defense that's collected seven interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) so far this fall.

Winslow Township High School’s football team was unbeaten in its first three games for the first time in 10 years entering last Saturday’s game against Washington Township. The Eagles are led by a talented senior core that includes (from left) Jamel Davis, Jayden Brown, Kenroy Mills, Jalen Cheek, Tiair Adams, Daizonn Foxworth and Everett Robinson. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Although it feels as if it’s just begun, the regular season for high school football is halfway over. Ten different South Jersey teams have began the truncated 2020 season 3-0.

Among them is Winslow Township, a somewhat surprising start given the Eagles’ competitive schedule and recent history. But third-year coach Kenny Scott and a tenacious defense are eager to flip that script. And two of Winslow’s senior leaders on defense aren’t that impressed with the team’s start; they’re more concerned with making sure the team finishes strong, too.

Prior to this weekend’s game with Washington Township, Jalen Cheek, who is headed to Boston College, and Navy-bound Jayden Brown, part of a defense that’s collected seven interceptions (including two touchdown returns) in three games, spoke to South Jersey Sports Weekly after the Eagles first 3-0 start in 10 years.

South Jersey Sports Weekly: Winslow Township was 3-8 last year. Now you’re 3-0. What’s been the difference?

Jalen Cheek: Coming into this year, the big word for us was “finish.” Last year we didn’t really finish. We had a bunch of close games, losing by one, two, three points. We had a double overtime game. We just didn’t finish games out. So this year coming in, we wanted to finish and focus on executing and doing everything we have to do. Coming out to practice, watching film — everything — in order to win those games.

Jayden Brown: Our mindset for each game is 1-0. That’s how you have to start out. You don’t want to think about 3-0 or 2-0, because that’s how you get caught up in the hype. Just think 1-0 every week.

SJSW: I know you referenced all of those close games last year and it’s spot on: five losses last year but five or fewer points, and most of them were by one or two points. Is there a mentality after the season, like, we were better than that?

Brown: Definitely. After we brought in some new coaches, (Winslow and Penn State alum offensive coordinator) Bill Belton, when he came in I just felt like it was going to be a better season. Just his attitude, he was ready to work. We probably started in June or early July and kept going, we never gave up. So that was big.

Cheek: I think Coach Bill coming in, he brought a new confidence to the team. He told us, way back in the summer when we were working out, he said we would beat Camden High. And then the day came and we beat them. He’s been saying that every week. “We’re going to beat Wilson.” And then we beat Wilson. So that’s it, like Jadyen said, 1-0 every week. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

SJSW: Not to harp on last year too much, but which was the loss that stung the most?

Cheek: The first one, who was it, Camden? Definitely.

Brown: Yeah, and this year, with everyone we’ve played — Camden, Wilson, Seneca — that was my first time in high school beating them. So the mindset is to come out here and beat them and that’s how we prepare for every game. 

SJSW: Timber Creek was probably a big one.

Cheek: That’s always a big one.

Brown: That’s our rival [laughs]. So yeah, that’s definitely a big one.

SJSW: Speaking of big, your defense has had quite a run. You guys haven’t allowed a point in 11 straight quarters. 

Cheek: That’s crazy.

Brown: I didn’t even think of that. 

SJSW: Yeah no points allowed since the first quarter of the Camden game.

Brown: Yeah, you’re right.

SJSW: What’s been the key on defense?

Brown: Game planning. That’s all we do. (Laughs.) Every time we come out here. We’re focused on offense but we’re very focused on defense. And people probably don’t think that. We’re installing (plays) all the time, and it might not look good the first day, but we’ll come out the next day and make it look better. 

Cheek: We don’t even do a lot of live reps on defense. It’s focusing, slowing everything down and making sure we’re doing everything we have to do. I play corner and he plays safety. We all have to know what we’re doing on the field so it makes all of us better.

Winslow Township High School seniors Jayden Brown and Jalen Cheek, who will play next year at Navy and Boston College, respectively, have led a suffocating Eagles defense that enters Saturday’s game at Washington Township not having allowed a score in 11 straight quarters. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: If you had one goal for the rest of the season, what would it be?

Cheek: Go 1-0 every week.

Brown: Yeah, I don’t really like saying (more than that). I don’t like looking too far ahead, I just want to go 1-0 every week.

Cheek: And I don’t know if we’re having playoffs or a championship, but that’s always the No. 1 goal.

SJSW: You have to be thankful just to be able to play after the last seven months with COVID-19. Was there a moment this summer when you weren’t sure if you were going to get to play?

Cheek: Yeah. 

Brown: Every day. [Laughs] 

Cheek: Every day.

Brown: But we just kept working because we didn’t want to be a step behind anybody.

SJSW: Jalen, what led to picking Boston College?

Cheek: We just got a new coaching staff. So starting with the head coach, he had been with the 49ers as the defensive backs coach and last year he was with Ohio State as the defensive coordinator. The way he developed Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, and Damon Arnette, he went in the first round, too. I’m a defensive back, so with him working with them, I know he’s had success. 

And I’ve got a 4.0 GPA, so education was important to me, too.

SJSW: And how about committing to Navy?

Brown: Shoot, my commitment was stressful. When I was going through the process all of my offers were coming through during quarantine. So it was hard to make a decision without visiting. I was listening to my family, talking to the coaches and I just fell in love with Navy. They were hitting me up everyday and I felt a brotherhood. And it’s not far from home, like two hours away so I wanted to stay close to family. The coaches there have been there for a while and have good chemistry. I think I can fit in there perfectly.

SJSW: Let’s have some fun with some of your teammates. Who is the fastest player on the team?

Brown: Me.

Cheek: (Laughs). He says it’s him, but I think it’s me.

SJSW: OK, who is third fastest? 

Cheek: Kenroy Mills, another safety.

Brown: Or Trey Thorpe.

SJSW: Who is the smartest player on the team?

Brown: [Looks at Cheek]. You’ve got the 4.0.

Cheek: It’s not me, though. Axel (Martinez), our center.

Brown: It’s not Jamel Davis?

Cheek: It might be. 

SJSW: Who is the strongest player on the team?

Cheek: I think it’s Amir Wiley.

SJSW: I like how you’re spreading it around. You must have a deep team.

Brown: Yeah, and it’s good to have that chemistry with your teammates. If you don’t have that, you come out of looking at game film and there’s no communication. 

SJSW: Who is the best athlete at the school?

Cheek: Us two. (Laughs)

Brown: I was trying to think of people who play multiple sports.

SJSW: Yeah, I know there are some talented girls on track.

Cheek: Last year, we had Janeya Hammond and Nylah Perry. But they graduated. They were good.

Brown: I gotta say us though. (Laughs).

SJSW: How about the best current female athlete? Isn’t Jaia James pretty good?

Cheek: Yea, she’s fast. And there’s a basketball player, Hanifa Neal.

SJSW: In 20 years, when people look back, what do you want the 2020 Winslow football team to be remembered for?

Brown: Just as a team that finished. Because Winslow has a bad history of not finishing. I don’t think we have any championships, so we have to finish.

Cheek: This is the best start we’ve had in 10 years. So in another 10 years, I want people to look back and say, ‘That’s the team that got Winslow started again.’”

SJSW: Because they finished.

Brown: Definitely.

Cheek: I just want (Winslow) to keep going.

Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.