GRANVILLE, Ohio – It is safe to say that hard work and determination have been the focus of sports and competition for many years. While that claim continues to ring true, the world of analytics and statistical data have become a large part of our sports culture, and those two worlds continue to come together, even for one of our own. On Friday, Feb. 5, Denison University junior and Denison Sports Network student assistant Jill Reiner was honored by the National Football League as one of three college-aged students to win the 2020-21 NFL Big Data Bowl.
Since 2018, the National Football League has hosted the annual sports analytics contest as an opportunity for passionate members of the sports analytics community to offer their insight on the evolution of advanced analysis in the NFL. This year’s competition focused on the analytics behind pass coverage in professional football and what leads to a successful defense once the quarterback drops back to pass. The 2020-21 contest also instituted a new mentorship program that paired active contestants with experienced analytics experts from different NFL organizations to work on this year’s competition.
A data analytics major with a minor in mathematics at Denison, Reiner had followed along with the competition in year’s past, but with this year’s addition of the mentorship program, she knew it was the right time to apply. After being accepted into the program last October, Reiner was paired with Sarah Bailey, the manager of analytics for the Los Angeles Rams, who worked hand-in-hand with the Denison junior as she offered support and guidance throughout the process. That guidance also led to Reiner’s stance and approach to the analytics behind this year’s theme.
“I think any good project starts off with a lot of brainstorming, so I definitely thought of a lot of different avenues to go down, some of them being more concrete than others,” said Reiner. “Basically, using player tracking data from all passing plays in the 2018 NFL season, I provided methods to better quantify individual defensive skill for members of the secondary at three broken down stages of a passing play. I created two models, the first being a targeted receiver probability model as well as another model for completion probability. From there, I was able to aggregate across all plays for each defender involved and came up with three different metrics to better assess a defender’s true skill in different phases of a passing play.
After submitting her project at the beginning of January, Reiner learned that her hard work paid off on Friday, Feb. 5 when the NFL’s Michael Lopez posted a message on Twitter congratulating the winners and informing them of their $5,000 cash prize. While the money was nice, Reiner felt the real victory was in the recognition from the program as a whole.
“I think what is also really cool about it is the recognition, just being in the same conversation as a lot of big names in sports analytics is a pretty awesome feeling. I am also fortunate that I get the opportunity to present my work in the near future to the National Football League executives alongside all the other winners, which I’m really excited for.”
While the NFL made the program possible and the experiences are something she will never forget, Reiner truly believes that the relationships that she has built throughout her first three years at Denison are one of the main reasons that she was readily prepared for an opportunity of this magnitude.
“Something everyone hears all the time from faculty and President Weinberg that really resonates with me is that a big part of what makes Denison so special are the relationships you develop here, whether that be your professors, advisors, alumni, or your peers,” said Reiner. “Throughout my time at Denison, I’ve fostered an amazing support system and couldn’t be more grateful for their guidance and friendship. The Data Analytics program at Denison has prepared me extremely well for any type of work, as I’ve not only learned to analyze all different types of data, but to think critically and thoughtfully through every situation. I’m really appreciative of all of my professors and advisors at Denison, especially my advisor Dr. Neal and also Dr. Brady.
To read Reiner’s completed project in full, please visit the following link.