Nithin Ragunathan / The Chronicle
The NFL’s Big Data Bowl is an annual football competition through which contestants take data given by Amazon’s NextGen Stats and Pro Football Focus and produce research projects to improve the analytical knowledge within the sport.
This year, the competition tasked participants with analyzing special teams from a data science perspective, with the ultimate goal of creating a new metric to evaluate NFL plays on special teams. Placing as a finalist, winning a $5,000 prize and receiving the opportunity to present his paper titled “Expected Field Position on Punts” was none other than Duke University senior Jack Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein’s project aims to predict which punts and punt return decisions are best in the NFL, and further “evaluate the decision-making of a punt returner”. To do this, Lichtenstein created a metric called expected field position to evaluate where an average punt return would finish, and therefore enable scouts to determine how well a returner performed above the average.
The NFL reported over 200 submissions between the open and college competitions, with five open entries and only three college entries (including Lichtenstein’s) awarded as finalists in the competition.
Lichtenstein credits much of his success to his decision to complete his project as an independent study, under the guidance of Colin Rundel of the Statistical Sciences department at Duke. He spent much of his first semester familiarizing himself with working with play-by-play data from NextGen Stats and eventually specializing on the project after the prompt came out.
“I recommend doing competitions for class credit. And then when you win it's like you're getting paid to go to school,” said Lichtenstein.
Lichtenstein now has the opportunity to present his work at the Big Data Bowl’s virtual show, with the potential of winning another $10,000 in prize money.
“It was really fun. I hope other people continue the Duke sports analytics legacy. I know I got some people reaching out to me on Twitter that were happy about that,” said Lichtenstein.
He likely won’t stop there when it comes to sports analytics. Alumni of the competition have had a wide variety of successful career opportunities, with many ending up in analytics departments in the NFL. With experience doing analytics for the Duke men’s basketball program on his resume and now this victory, Lichtenstein is in line to receive opportunities to carry on his interests beyond Duke and into professional sports.