Is Kevin Kelley, the Pulaski Academy High School Football Coach, An Analytics Genius?
In case you have not heard the name before, Kevin Kelley is the Head Football Coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock Arkansas and has somewhat of a cult following because of his numbers focused analysis of the game of football. Kelley has been featured in articles and stories in places such as HBO's Real Sports and as well as the website fivethirtyeight.com and he was featured at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Kelley's unique style of analytics based play has made his team a power house in Arkansas including a 38-2 record over the previous three years. Through Kelley's deep dive into analytical analysis of current and past football trends Kelley has noticed the following unique wrinkles in the game of football.
1. Field position has a smaller effect on the high school football game than most people innately believe. If a team starts their offense near their opponent's goal line compared to near midfield, the odds of them scoring are only increased by about 15-20%. This had led Kelley to go for it on fourth down nearly anywhere on the field. Kelley's belief that having almost any odds of converting a fourth down is more valuable than giving up a possession in hopes of only marginally decreasing the opponent's ability to score.
2. Having possession of the ball is one of the most important aspects of the game. Kelley, like most coaches, is a proponent of keeping offensive turnovers to a minimum. However, where Kelley's strategy becomes a bit unique is that he will almost always choose an onside kick over a more traditional kickoff. In fact, his team has multiple players who practice multiple variations of the onside kick, in hopes of increasing their success at recovering the kick.
3. Big play success is a key indicator of which team wins a high school football game. Coach Kelley's analysis has shown that the team who has more big play success (plays of 20+ yards) has a significant advantage in terms of winning the game. Kelley has implemented this strategy in 2015 by increasing the number of plays that he uses where multiple players (3 or more), through a variety of pitches and short passes, touch the ball on a given play.
The Wizard of Oddz take -
While Kevin Kelley's results speak for themselves (38-2 record is not easy against any level of competition), these strategies need to be analyzed against a team's specific situation. A lot of what Kelley is looking at is correlation and not causation. A good team is going to have more big plays than a bad team just because they are successful, not necessarily because they have multiple players touch the ball.
Kelley's team practices his style of play on a regular basis. A team should first and foremost have a strategy that they execute against on a daily basis. Proper execution is just as important as proper strategy. Having a kicker who has never kicked an onside kick in practice go out and kick onside kicks every kickoff is not going to give you the same success as Coach Kelley.
Having an unexpected strategy is in and of itself a competitive advantage. This can be seen in Coach Kelley's system or the fast scoring basketball system called the Grinnell System or in less drastic areas in professional supports such as the shift to a passing league in the NFL or the Warrior's style of play in the NBA. If an opponent doesn't practice against a system on a regular basis, they are less prepared to combat it during a regular season game. But once more teams adopt that style of play, opponents become better equipped to handle it.
Finally, Kelley spends an extraordinary amount of time studying his craft and is looking to minimize risk through preparation, while maximizing return through new and unique takes on analytical concepts. He would be the first to say that no one single aspect of his system is a sure fire success every game, but the accumulation of multiple analytical advantages helps to give his team an edge.