Since Hardy Nickerson re-lit it 20 years ago, the mantle of leadership within the Buccaneers locker room — that proverbial torch everyone talks about — has been left behind more often than it has been passed on.

It was left for Warren Sapp, who held it after Nickerson left in 2000. It was left for Derrick Brooks, who held it after Sapp left 2004. And it was left for Ronde Barber when Brooks left in 2009.

Now, it can finally be passed on. Barber, who announced his retirement on Thursday, is only too glad to do so. He was always an apprehensive bearer anyway, admittedly more comfortable serving as a lieutenant than a captain.

“Not everybody can handle a leadership role, and to be honest, I didn't handle it well,'' Barber said. “When all those guys left, it was like, boom — leadership void. I was like, 'OK, I guess I'll do it.'”

Barber did it better than he realizes. He didn't speak much, but his actions — the way he prepared for a game, the way he carried himself on and off the field, the way he worked — kept the torch burning.

Now, it can be passed on, but to whom? Barber knows just the right guy, one who has not just that rare blend of personality, desire and determination but the credentials to command a team's attention.

“It's very clearly Gerald McCoy,” Barber said of the 2012 Pro Bowl defensive tackle. “He's the guy that needs to assume that role. Not only because he's one of the best players on the team, but because he has the personality to handle it.”

Barber also mentioned quarterback Josh Freeman, because of his position, and receiver Vincent Jackson, because of his talent and the admiration teammates have for him, as necessary torch bearers on the offensive side of the ball.

But on the defensive side of the ball, where the tradition that started with Lee Roy Selmon, was re-ignited by Nickerson and carried on by Sapp, Brooks and Barber, McCoy must take over.

“A lot of people don't give Gerald credit for the year he had last year, but the people that played against him (did),” Barber said. “And when you talk to a guy like John Lynch, who did a lot of games (as a Fox TV analyst), he'll tell you.