Duke student Jack Lichtenstein named NFL Big Data Bowl finalist

The NFL Big Data Bowl is an annual football competition through which competitors take data provided by Amazon’s NextGen Stats and Pro Football Focus and produce research projects to improve analytical knowledge in sports.

This year, the competition tasked participants with analyzing special teams from a data science perspective, with the ultimate goal of creating a new metric for evaluating NFL plays on special teams. Coming in as a finalist, winning a $5,000 prize, and having 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 punt and punt return decisions are best in the NFL, and to “further evaluate a punt returner’s decision-making.” To do this, Lichtenstein created a metric called expected field position to gauge where an average punt return would end, and thus allow scouts to determine how well a returner performed above average.

The NFL reported more than 200 submissions between open and collegiate competitions, with five open entries and only three college entries (including Lichtenstein’s) awarded as contest finalists.

Lichtenstein credits much of his success to his decision to carry out his project as an independent study, under the direction of Colin Rundel of Duke’s Department of Statistical Sciences. He spent much of his first semester getting to grips with working with NextGen Stats play-by-play data and eventually specializing on the project after the prompt came out.

“I recommend competing for class credit. And then when you win, it’s like you get paid to go to school,” Lichtenstein said.

Lichtenstein now has the opportunity to showcase his work at the Big Data Bowl virtual tradeshow, with the chance to win an additional $10,000 in prizes.

“It was really fun. I hope other people will continue Duke’s sports analysis legacy. I know some people reached out to me on Twitter and were thrilled about it,” Lichtenstein said. .

He probably won’t stop there when it comes to sports analysis. Alumni of the contest have had a wide variety of successful career opportunities, many of which have ended up in the analysis departments of the NFL. With experience analyzing Duke’s men’s basketball program on his resume and now this win, Lichtenstein is in line to receive opportunities to pursue his interests beyond Duke and into professional sports.

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