Created:Monday, March 26, 2012 11:40 p.m.CDT

Butler cleared for full-contact practices

Northern Illinois linebacker Devon Butler watches his teammates during a December practice at the DeKalb Recreation Center. (Kyle Bursaw –

DeKALB – Less than a year ago, Devon Butler was fighting for his life.

An unintended shooting victim on April 5, 2011 – the result a drug deal gone bad that he had no involvement in or knowledge of – Butler has shown steady, significant progress in his battle back from the night he had to undergo potentially life-saving surgery at Rockford’s OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center.

The Northern Illinois middle linebacker spent two weeks in a hospital with a collapsed lung after being shot in the upper right side of his back. By December, Butler was back in pads at bowl practices, competing in noncontact drills.

Last week Butler was cleared for full-contact for spring practices, NIU coach Dave Doeren said at Monday’s news conference. Practices begin Wednesday at Huskie Stadium.

“I’m very excited to watch him,” Doeren said. “He had his final doctor’s meeting last week to say whether or not he was cleared for contact, and they gave him a clean bill of health. He went through all of the winter conditioning. He’s in as good a shape as he’s been in since the incident.”

Butler, a junior who used a redshirt last season, will compete for the starting spot at middle linebacker with senior Victor Jacques. Doeren said with Butler’s medical clearance last week, he won’t be held back in drills.

“You won’t notice any difference between him and anybody else,” Doeren said.

Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said he wants Butler to get back into his routine at middle linebacker. Before the incident, Butler was a third-team all-Mid-American Conference selection in 2010. He was second on the team in tackles and second on the team with 4.5 sacks.

Niemann said he didn’t to see much of Butler before the incident last year, but knew that Butler was a highly thought of before Niemann came to NIU with Doeren.

Niemann said he wants to gauge Butler’s health and what a year away from contact has done to Butler before he evaluates him.

“I think the main thing is, hopefully we get him back on the field healthy and just taking reps and getting back in the groove of playing football: understanding how to set the front and align people and do the things that good middle linebackers do,” Niemann said.

Richard Van Arsdale III, 21, was sentenced to nine years in prison March 9 after reaching a plea deal that includes restitution to Butler and the DeKalb Police Department as well as an agreement to testify in the trial of Mark Orozco, the man accused of firing the gun.

Doeren called Butler’s medical clearance a breath of fresh air for the linebacker and his family.

After he’s watched Butler come so far in less than a year, the coach couldn’t help but be excited about what the spring could hold for Butler.

“Just to have him back and see him smile and walk around with a backpack on like I saw him a little bit ago,” Doeren said, “it makes you feel good.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?