LINCOLN — The Sports Analytics and Data Analysis wing inside Nebraska’s athletic department could be adding a few more experts by this fall.
For now, the director and lone full-time employee, Tucker Zeleny, spins around his computer monitor to offer a look at an in-depth report he compiled for defensive coordinator Mark Banker. The presentation breaks down all of NU’s tendencies on certain downs and distances, routes run by the opponent, how Banker’s bunch responded to those routes and the ultimate outcome.
The data is dizzying. But the format is easy to navigate.
“It works a lot better than a stack of papers on a coach’s desk,” Zeleny said.
Soon, he said, he’ll have an overhead television in his Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab office so that, when coaches drop by, he doesn’t have to move his monitor.
How stats and data are presented — and the clarity and ease with which coaches can draw conclusions — can’t take a backseat to the insight in the report. And those conclusions come after the most exhaustive part of analytics: collecting the data.
Which is why Zeleny, who earned his doctorate in statistics from Nebraska in May 2015 and became NU’s director later last summer, is perfectly OK with adding people to his department. Nebraska might get another full-time staffer and a graduate assistant who can work 20 hours per week. Then, undergraduate assistants looking to work in the field volunteer their time during the school year.
Every mind helps in the world of analytics.
Receptive coaches help, too. Coaches who are hungry to learn more, who want Zeleny to dig deeper into topics. Zeleny said Nebraska has that. One coach is at the top of that list.
“Tim Miles is pretty into it,” Zeleny said of the Husker men’s basketball coach. “Everybody’s embraced it, but he’s the one coming up with a lot of good ideas and throwing stuff back and forth with us.”
Zeleny plans to meet with women’s basketball coach Amy Williams. He wants to get more involved with the national champion volleyball team. He’s in regular contact with several Nebraska football analysts, and meets with assistant coaches and Mike Riley when necessary. Zeleny scours stat sites like sports-reference.com and teamrankings.com, both sites that analyze a variety of sports, including college football and men’s college basketball. Each week during the football season, he gets a stat download from Pro Football Focus, which also looks at the college game.
During spring practice, Riley cited a study done by Zeleny on turnover margin that he found illuminating. Zeleny said he actually did that study prior to Riley’s arrival, when Bo Pelini was still NU’s coach. Zeleny started working more with Nebraska’s athletic department in September 2014. He said the Huskers’ previous football coaching staff was also receptive to analytics.
What did the turnover margin study find? That some teams with less perceived talent still won big thanks to a positive turnover margin. Kansas State was an example.
“They jumped off the page as a team that’s an overachiever,” Zeleny said.
Nebraska’s program has long struggled with turnover margin. Since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska is minus-38 in turnover margin. In that same time frame, Kansas State is plus-37. Over the last five years, KSU has won 44 games. NU has won 43. Nebraska’s average 2011-15 recruiting class rank, according to 247Sports’ composite service, was 26.8. Kansas State’s rank was 58.
Nevertheless, Zeleny sifted through Nebraska’s stats from last season and found the Huskers were “pretty unlucky.”
“And I don’t think that comes as a shock to anyone who watched our games,” he said. “We had some pretty rough bounces. Close games like that, you expect them to work out even more often than not.”
It’s the uncharted statistical territory of football that intrigues Zeleny, but he loves digging into any sport.
On the Husker baseball team, he has a kindred spirit in volunteer coach Brad Smith.
Smith is a former classmate of Zeleny’s. He received his master’s degree in statistics at UNL and is pursuing a doctorate in the Quantitative, Qualitative and Psychometric Methods program in the department of educational psychology. He worked as a graduate manager on the Nebraska baseball team for four years.
This year, he’s a volunteer coach who in part is working with NU coach Darin Erstad on situational baseball — when to bunt, when to steal. Part of Smith’s master’s degree work was to look at each of the 24 scenarios a hitter faces when he goes to the plate — zero men on with zero outs all the way up to bases loaded with two outs — and examine the probability of scoring runs in those scenarios. When is it worth it to bunt or steal and potentially give up an out, and when isn’t it?
Smith then looked at specific NU players. Steven Reveles, for example, is a good bunter and a speedy runner. He’s more likely to turn a bunt into a base hit than some other players.
Erstad, a former major league player, has been open to analytics, Smith said.
“He’s good at giving feedback,” Smith said.
“It’s over my head,” Erstad said jokingly. “I’m like, ‘Break it down for me a little easier.’ But he’s got his whole spreadsheet with outcomes in every situation and the expected run return. We’ve taken a hard look at that.”
It can be hard to determine the line between what Smith describes as Erstad’s “strong gut feeling” and analytics, but this much is clear: Nebraska’s offense is better than it was in 2015, and the Huskers are bunting less.
In 2015, they averaged 4.8 runs per game. This year they entered the weekend averaging 5.8. This year’s Huskers had 19 sacrifice hits compared with 48 last season. Also, they had stolen as many bases this year (58) as they attempted in 2015. Their stolen base success rate (69 percent) is essentially the same as in 2015 (68.9 percent).
Smith, who’s mulling over a number of career paths, including coaching or perhaps a sabermetrics job in baseball, said coaching and analytics make a good blend.
Zeleny adheres to the same philosophy.
“Analytics is never going to take away the value of coaching,” Zeleny said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have people with their knowledge coaching, but I think analytics provides a lot of value. So I think marrying the two is key in figuring out the right balance. If you go overboard in either direction, you’ll be in trouble. Meet in the middle.”
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