GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After five months of hoping senior point guard Erving Walker would become Florida's vocal on-court leader, coach Billy Donovan has decided he's going to look somewhere else.
Whether it's sophomore center Patric Young, sophomore guard Scottie Wilbekin, or freshman guard Bradley Beal, Donovan wants one of them -- or a combination of the three -- to become the player who huddles the team in critical situations, keeps them focused when things aren't going well, and ensures that the 13th-ranked Gators (22-7, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) play with a high level of passion and energy. Walker didn't do any of that in Saturday's loss at Georgia.
"Erving is a really good player and he’s done a lot of great things," Donovan said Monday. "He’s a pretty even-keeled guy, but there are sometimes where your team can reflect the personality of the guy in charge, and with him being in charge and when things are not going well for our team, there is sometimes that we need some more fire out of him.
"Especially when you play on the road, it’s hostile, it’s loud, someone has got to get in there and grab each other and say, 'This is what we’re doing,' and, 'Move on to the next play,' and there’s not a lot of that. Erving has always been a kid since I’ve coached him here [who] has always tried to do on the court playing-wise what I’ve asked him to do. He’s always been very compliant, he’s coachable, he’s a great kid, he does all of that stuff. But some of the stuff that could take our team to a different level, I’m not so sure he’s capable or wants to."
Walker, who is UF's all-time leader in assists (516) and is just 13 3-pointers away from tying the school's career record, is in the position of being the Gators' vocal leader for the first time. Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin filled that role the past two years, and Walker was content to just play without any leadership responsibilities. Donovan has been pressing him since practice began in October to take over for those two, but it hasn't happened.
You'd expect someone who had to deal with ribbing about his height (he's 5-foot-8) and constant doubts about his ability to play while growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., to become a brash, loud and arrogant point guard. Walker is an introvert, a quiet guy who would rather lead by example than with words. That's OK, Donovan said, when things are going well. But when things aren't -- such as when shots weren't falling and the Gators were down by double digits against the Bulldogs on Saturday -- it's a problem. That's why Donovan benched Walker for nearly six minutes in the second half.
"Sometimes with him because he is a very internally deep-rooted thinking kid, sometimes when you make a player start worry about other players, it becomes too much for them," Donovan said. "We weren’t getting [the level of passion needed on the floor], and I just felt like the way the game was going, we needed to make some changes to try to get some kind of passion injected into our team. I think Patric Young is starving for that. I think Brad Beal is starving for that. I think Murphy is starving for that. I think our team is starving for that. We don’t have that.
"When you’re a good player, you’re the point guard, some of that stuff just naturally falls on you. It just naturally does. It’s not like he’s reluctant to it. His personality, [that's ] kind of the way he is. He’s not defying. He’s not being rebellious. It’s just he’s not comfortable doing it."
So now it's up to Young, Beal and Wilbekin. Young and Beal are much more gregarious and outgoing than Walker. Wilbekin is quiet, but Donovan loves his toughness and willingness to get in the middle of any situation. Those three have to deliver, though, because the Gators' season likely depends on it. UF plays at Vanderbilt (20-9, 9-5) on Tuesday and ends the regular season against No. 1 Kentucky (28-1, 14-0) at home on Sunday.
Young said that while he eventually would like to grow into that role, it's going to take a collective effort because becoming a team leader is a process that can't be rushed by anyone saying, "You're the leader now."
"Guys have to have confidence in you that you're going to do the right things, that you can lift guys up even when you're not playing well and there are times when there is adversity that you have to stay strong," Young said. "I think each of our guys are trying to do that, but if we stay collected, we don't need one guy. If we have five guys locked in, there doesn't have to be one guy that brings us together no matter what the problem was."