By Richard LeComte
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans may look like the best running back in the NFL as he barrels down the field, but sports statistics may say otherwise, according to University of Kentucky student Nevaeh Eggleston. By analyzing statistics for NFL running backs, she can discern how Henry, while great, may not be the best in certain circumstances.
“For football in particular, people look at rushing yards, and for a while Derrick Henry was rated as the No. 1 rusher until his numbers fell,” said Eggleston, a UK College of Arts & Sciences senior math major from Huntsville, Alabama. “But if you look at someone like (Cleveland Browns running back) Nick Chubb and everyone else, their yards after hits are higher than Derrick Henry’s as of right now.”
Eggleston aims to bring her statistical skills to the world of sports. She’s particularly wrapped up in evaluating football players, especially running backs. She shows that the majors in the College of Arts & Sciences can take students unexpected places — even onto the gridiron. She grew up in a family that took sports seriously: She and her father run a fantasy football team, and her sister plays collegiate softball.
“My parents had all of the books, so we knew a lot about each player,” said Eggleston, who has minors in statistics and Africana studies. “But as I was growing up watching baseball, the NBA and the NFL, I saw the math scrolling underneath the picture: how many points they scored, average running yards, all that. When I got to UK, I thought somebody has to be doing that. The numbers can't just magically appear in their head, and so that drove me to figure out that there were data analysts in the background producing those numbers. And now you hear about them a lot more on ESPN. The analysts talk on camera a lot more.”
She already performed a data analysis internship at Acadian Assest Management Co. in Boston. At UK, she’s the president of the Aspiring Sports Professionals group, where students get to interact with professionals in their prospective fields to find out what could be in store for them.
“We have a lot of members who are interested in media, which is nice," she said. "We have people come in from ESPN and other networks. It's nice to have other perspectives too, because a lot of people are media at ESPN, but they’re not on camera.”
After she graduates in December 2023, she plans to go on to study for a master’s in the A&S Dr. Bing Zhang Department of Statistics graduate program, where she can deepen her knowledge of how numbers interact with the X’s and O’s on the football field and the basketball court.
“In the statistics program, they do a lot of football and basketball, so I'm going to try to start there and we're going to see how it goes," she said. "I might move around a little bit and try other things. But that's where we're starting.”
Beyond math, Eggleston has a variety of interests, including the campus NAACP, for which she’s treasurer, and Campus Kitchen. She's also received the William C. Parker Scholarship and the United Negro College Foundation Scholarship. She also serves as a College of Arts & Sciences’ ambassador and works as an undergraduate teaching assistant for the Mathematics Department, where she’s discovered that number theory can be just as interesting as statistics.
“I helped teach MA 261, which is a number theory class,” she said. “It’s a very interesting class. I like theory in math.”
She chose UK over several schools near her home in part through the recruitment efforts of Albert Corso, the director of undergraduate studies for the Math Department.
"Since the first time I met Nevaeh she struck me as a mathematics major with a great deal of academic talent, an engaging personality, and a wide range of interests," said Alberto Corso, associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies for Mathematics. "That combination has been an asset to her in both her own success and helping other students succeed, and motivated me to recommend her as a department representative in the A&S Ambassador program and as an Eaves assistant in our upper division math courses.
"One thing that especially strikes me is the strong family support that she has. I've had the chance to meet her family members many times, as they are here each time she achieves a major recognition — most recently as the 2022 recipient of the Lyman T. Johnson Torch Bearer Award for A&S, where we had a hard time fitting her entire family at the table. I'm immensely proud of what Nevaeh has accomplished in her time at UK but I am sure that the best has to come yet."
One of the biggest driving forces behind her interest in sports arises from her Black heritage. She has an interest in showing how Black athletes contributed to sports culture in the United States and is blown away by the fact that they were not allowed to participate in Major League Baseball and other groups for many years. She’s read “Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football” by Derrick White, UK professor of history, and she also watched “42,” the film depicting Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major-league baseball.
“I read Dr. White’s book the other day, and I thought, this is crazy," she said. “All these players were told they couldn’t play, and here they are making it in the pros. And then the movie ‘42’ blew my mind. Every time I watch it, I take something different away from it. It's a great movie. You get the feeling things are getting better and better.”