The Ravens signed this year math genius John Urschel — he taught Trigonometry and Analytic Geometry at Penn State — in the fifth round of the draft. Now local math tutor Jim Trexler of Mathnasium Roland Park has signed the offensive lineman to push math programs in Baltimore. Doubt this guy’s math cred? Read the Grantland interview below. You’ll see, he’s smarter than the average bear…and Bengal, and Brown, and Steeler, and the rest, too! – The Eds.
By Ed Feng
When people think of mathematicians, they often think of the stereotype: the awkward, hunched-over guy doing groundbreaking research at a bar. Russell Crowe’s John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
John Urschel isn’t that kind of mathematician. He’s a 6-foot-3, 313-pound man who lines up across from defenders and hits them, hard. Urschel was a first-team All–Big Ten offensive lineman the last two seasons at Penn State, and he projects as a fourth- or fifth-round pick in this week’s NFL draft. He works hard at football, and when he’s finished, he goes home and does math.
Recently, Urschel sent me two of his published papers, one on celestial mechanics, the other on subgraphs, both of which could have earned him a doctorate in math. As the draft looms and his reputation as a mathematician grows, I spoke with Urschel about football, numbers, and the future.
I met you at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, so you’re paying attention to the field. In your mind, what’s the biggest advancement in football analytics at the moment?
I’d say the best thing going so far is expected points added. In football, expected points added is how many points a team can expect to score based on down and field position.
I think that’s really a great foundation, because when you don’t take these things into account, every result you come up with, you can just throw out the window now.
In what sense?
A yard is worth different amounts at different points on the field and in different positions and situations. The value of a yard changes. Then we can look at how players perform in certain situations.
Like how well Penn State rushed the ball on third-and-2, for example?
Exactly. Honestly, Penn State’s ability to get two yards at third-and-2 is a lot more important than its ability to get two yards on first-and-10.
But also, in my humble opinion, the thing that’s really missing from football right now is video recognition. That’s the number one thing that should be on everyone’s mind. Let’s get that done.
It’s a lot tougher than basketball. I understand the struggle. You’ve got 22 bodies. It’s very chaotic, especially in the middle when you’re dealing with offensive line, defensive line. But I think that’s the next big step we need because with that data, let me tell you, the sky’s the limit.
Can you talk a bit about the importance of intelligence when it comes to playing offensive line?
Yeah, I’d say it’s crucial to offensive line play, being able to see what the defense is doing, see what they’re showing you, see pre-snap reads, to be able to adjust what your assignments are on the fly, depending on what the defense shows you. So yeah, you have to be very intelligent. You have to be very quick.
Quicker in body, or quicker in mind?
Quick in mind, especially.
With intelligence being such an important part of an offensive lineman and with your mathematical ability in particular, how much do you worry about the head trauma that can stem from playing football?
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