Scoring big in the NFL Big Data Bowl

Data Analytics major and mathematics minor Jill Reiner hit the big time as one of three winners in the 2021 national NFL Big Data Bowl. 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. Reiner shares the scoop from inside the world of sports analytics.

What attracts you to sports analysis? Is this something you want to pursue as a career?

I’ve grown up loving sports but hadn’t really discovered the statistical and analytical side of sports until maybe my first year at Denison. Since my time at Denison, I’ve really grown to love not just statistics in sports, but in all fields. Being a Data Analytics major and having a love for sports from a pretty young age, it would be awesome to combine those two passions and work in sports analytics in some capacity after I graduate!

You were paired with Sarah Bailey, the manager of analytics for the Los Angeles Rams, in the contest. Can you tell us what you learned from someone who’s in the business of sports analysis?

I think just having someone who’s as experienced in sports analytics like Sarah is and having that feedback and encouragement from her was huge for me. One of my biggest takeaways from Sarah is to be confident in your work and confident in your abilities and to not be afraid to put yourself out there.

Tell us about your winning strategy.

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. 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, a targeted receiver probability model and a 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.

“Just being in the same conversation as a lot of big names in sports analytics is a pretty awesome feeling”

You were one of three winners and you were awarded $5,000. How did that feel?

Besides the money, 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.”

Can you tell us about a favorite class?

My favorite class at Denison would have to be DA 101, Intro to Data Analytics. I took it in the second semester of my freshman year and had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do as a career at that point. I had Dr. Neal, who is now my advisor, and we explored data from all different domains, some being as strange as mustard seed data to NBA data. I think that was the class that really drew me into the Data Analytics major and I’m happy I stumbled across it!

How did Denison prepare you to be a winner?

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.

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.

Do you have any insights for students who are interested in Data Analytics?

I’d definitely say take Data Analytics classes even if you’re not so sure that’s what you want to do after Denison. There’s data in literally every field out there, so even if you don’t want to be a data analyst, the skills you learn in DA classes are applicable to anything. I’d also say to get to know your DA professors, this is truly an amazing department with some really talented and amazing faculty!

February 12, 2021